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Bus company, driver sued in FAMU hazing death

By Antoinette Campbell, CNN
updated 6:35 PM EST, Mon February 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Bus driver "forced" vomiting band member to go back on the bus, the suit alleges
  • NEW: The bus company told drivers who'd complained to ignore hazing, says the suit
  • FAMU band member Robert Champion died after he was beaten on a bus in November
  • His family's attorney says the lawsuit is about getting answers, not money

(CNN) -- A lawsuit filed by the family of Robert Champion, the Florida A&M University band member allegedly beaten to death in a hazing ritual, accuses the bus company involved in the deadly assault and the bus driver of negligence, their attorney said Monday.

The suit alleges that Fabulous Coach Lines and its driver not only consented to the illegal acts of hazing by students, they knowingly participated in the planned hazing activity over several years.

"This was a culture embraced by this bus company," Chris Chestnut said.

According to court documents, Bus C, which is was the vehicle where the incident took place and the name of a specific hazing ritual, was parked in a dark corner, separate from the other buses provided by the company.

The suit also alleges that the bus and its air conditioning system were running at the time Champion was beaten and that the bus driver was standing guard at the door to prevent anyone from entering or exiting the vehicle.

When Champion stepped off the bus at one point to vomit, the bus driver told him "he would be alright as she forced him back onto the bus," the lawsuit claims.

Despite a request for damages in excess of $15,000, Chestnut insisted the focus isn't money. It allows him to file subpoenas and take witness statements to further the investigation.

"We figure out how this happened, we figure out how to fix it, and then we stop it from happening again," Chestnut said.

Calls to the bus company and its attorneys, Wicker, Smith, O'Hara, McCoy, and Ford, PA, for comment have not been returned.

Chestnut said he hopes to begin taking depositions in the next 90 days.

Champion's parents, Pamela and Robert -- who are named in the lawsuit and live outside Atlanta -- were not present at Monday's news conference in Orlando, Florida, but Chestnut said their goal is to get answers and justice for Robert.

"We're going to hold everyone responsible," Chestnut said.

FAMU is protected under sovereign immunity, and the family must file a statutory notice of intent to sue and wait six months to file suit against the school. Chestnut said he does anticipate suing the university.

Fabulous Coach Lines President Ray Land said last month that the company's employees, who were not on the bus at the time, responded quickly after learning there was an emergency -- even following the ambulance transporting Champion to the hospital, taking other band members there.

"We did transport our passengers safely from point A to point B as contracted," Land said. When employees were notified of an emergency on board one of the nine buses in the convoy, "we responded just as quickly and effectively as we could."

Some band members have said Champion, 26, died after taking part in an annual rite of passage called "Crossing Bus C."

According to the lawsuit, it's an initiation process in which pledges attempt to run down the center aisle from the front door of the bus to the back while being punched, kicked and assaulted by senior members.

Chestnut has said he's heard that the ritual may have happened before on Fabulous Coach Lines.

In fact, the lawsuit filed by his clients claims that Bus C's driver "frequently participated or allowed the 'Bus C' initiation" and "advised other drivers that she was part of the 'Bus C' posse."

Other drivers from the same company had "complained of hazing rituals" on that bus specifically. But they "were instructed by Fabulous Coach administration to ignore it and (told) that FAMU was paying for it and could do what they want," according to the lawsuit.

However, Land said the bus company has "never seen this kind of behavior" from the band.

Champion collapsed in Orlando on the bus, which was carrying members of FAMU's Marching 100 after a November football game that included a halftime performance by the group.

The medical examiner's office ruled his death a homicide and said Champion "collapsed and died within an hour of a hazing incident during which he suffered multiple blunt trauma blows to his body."

An autopsy found "extensive contusions of his chest, arms, shoulder and back," as well as "evidence of crushing of areas of subcutaneous fat," which is the fatty tissue directly under the skin.

The death prompted the FAMU board of trustees to approve a new three-part anti-hazing plan, which includes an independent panel of experts to investigate.

The board approved the policy 9-1 last week.

Champion's mother has said she wants hazing to stop.

"Think twice when your kids are going off to college," she said. "Look into what's going on at their college. ... Now we know."

Along with the university, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Orange County Sheriff's Office are also investigating the case.

No one has been charged in Champion's death.

CNN's Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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