The families of two Virginia State University students who drowned during their initiation into a fraternal group two years ago have filed twin $25 million wrongful death suits against the state of Virginia and the four men recently convicted in their deaths.
The mothers of Jauwan Holmes and Marvell Edmondson, who were swept away on April 20, 2013, while trying to cross the Appomattox River, are each seeking $25 million in compensatory damages against the state, claiming VSU was grossly negligent in its duty to protect the students from harm.
Also named as defendants are James A. Mackey Sr., 37; Charles E. Zollicoffer II, 30; Eriq K. Benson, 20; and Cory D. Baytop, 27, all of whom pleaded guilty or no contest Feb. 12 to hazing and involuntary manslaughter charges. The four were sentenced to varying jail terms, ranging from five to 14 months.
The plaintiffs also are seeking $350,000 in punitive damages against the four men collectively, according to the two civil complaints, filed the day after they were convicted in Chesterfield County Circuit Court. All four men are still serving their sentences in Riverside Regional Jail or the Chesterfield County Jail and could not be reached for comment.
The victims’ families are being represented by Gregory S. Hooe, a lawyer with Marks & Harrison in Tappahannock.
“Virginia State University, through its administrators, deans, supervisors and other employees stood in a special relationship with its students ... and owned a duty to use reasonable care to protect students from and/or warn students about reasonably foreseeable harm from fellow students or others coming onto campus or in contact with VSU students, including but not limited to harm from illegal hazing,” the suit says.
Further, the suit says VSU violated its duty to the students “by failing to take reasonable and safe measures to investigate, supervise, eradicate and/or warn about allegedly nonaffiliated or ‘underground’ social clubs such as the Men of Honor” that engaged in “unreasonably dangerous hazing, even if such groups were not officially approved by or affiliated with the school.”
Contacted Wednesday, VSU spokesman Thomas Reed said the school does not comment on pending litigation.
Three years ago, as rescue crews worked to recover the bodies of the two students, Reed made clear that Men of Honor was “an underground, shadow organization” the university had refused to recognize or sanction about a year earlier. Two of the men involved were new members of the group, the older two were regarded as mentors.
The suit says the four individual defendants actively engaged in recruiting, supervising, directing and instructing the Men of Honor recruits, including Holmes and Edmondson, and actively participated in the planning and supervision of the hazing activities, including the attempted river crossing.
The complaint adds that the four men “wantonly mislead” the recruits about the depth of the river and the “hazards associated with the attempted crossing.”
In a previously undisclosed allegation, the suit claims that after Holmes and Edmondson were swept away, the surviving recruits and the four men supervising them “convened” at Mac’s Grill, a restaurant owned and operated by Mackey, the group’s leader, without notifying police or rescue personnel about what transpired.
“When Christian Cavazos, one of the students who had been attempting to cross the river, found out that local authorities or rescue personnel had not yet been notified that Holmes and Edmondson were missing, he immediately left the restaurant and went into Petersburg to notify police so that search and rescue efforts could begin,” the complaint says.
In a summary of evidence at the February criminal trial, prosecutors said the four defendants led seven recruits to the banks of the Appomattox River as part of their final initiation rite. They were to lock arms and cross the chilly, storm-swelled waters around midnight.
The students became submerged nearly as soon as they entered the river, and they were immediately swept downstream. Several had to be rescued by panicked Men of Honor members, who in court said they wished they could take it all back.
Neither Holmes nor Edmondson could swim. Their bodies were recovered over the next four days.
During the weeklong initiation process, the Men of Honor pledges at times would be required to recite poems but were paddled if they made mistakes or cursed.