60 Minutes Hazing Segment Follow-up: Q & A with The Fierberg National Law Group
January 12, 2022
Late last year, 60 Minutes aired a segment about fraternity hazing at the Washington State University that resulted in the tragic death of Sam Martinez. This Q & A serves to dig deeper into the realities of hazing from the perspective of Douglas E. Fierberg, Esq., of The Fierberg National Law Group (TFNL Group), the legal team representing families, survivors, and others in lawsuits involving fraternity hazing, and more. The TFNL Group represents the Martinez family and numerous other families who have experienced loss and harm due to hazing.
For those who may be new to this topic, can you describe your firm’s experience with hazing and hazing cases?
The firm handled its first fraternity hazing case way back in the mid-1990s, which involved a brutal hazing of a young man at the University of Maryland. The case went to trial after our client rejected an offer of $5,000 and the jury awarded $375,000 in damages. After that came a sorority hazing case involving two women who were branded with lit cigarettes during an initiation ritual at DePauw University. That case was also resolved favorably. We learned in the process of handling these two cases just how prevalent hazing is, as well as how little fraternities have done to make the organizational changes necessary to reduce and/or eliminate these dangerous traditions (sororities have done more, though not enough). We also learned how important it is to represent young people and their families in these types of cases because, often, it is their first direct contact with the civil justice system, and we endeavor to make that as understandable, empowering and successful as possible. For many families, it’s about imposing reforms on the Greek industry so that their loss can help protect others. With our experience, we know enough about the problems in the Greek industry to help insist upon and obtain meaningful reforms.
Can you define the term “Greek Industry” or explain why the firm uses it?
We use this term because it properly describes how fraternities operate in this country. There are numerous national fraternities operating on the vast majority of college campuses across the country. National fraternities generate significant revenue from a number of sources, including recruiting new undergraduate members, rental income from housing owned and/or controlled at prime college locations, and gifts and donations from alumni. They often create and operate through a number of affiliated corporate entities that benefit from tax-exempt status, with some holding title to and managing real estate located on campuses. Many of the national fraternities have annual revenues in excess of a million dollars and have net worths of tens of millions of dollars.
Do you think there needs to be more accountability of national fraternity and sorority organizations related to hazing incidents? If so, what should that look like?
The fraternities have the greatest ability to make reforms across the country, and this is where the change must originate. The blame for failing to make such change is with the fraternities and their trade groups. By one simple example, fraternities could end the concept and process of “pledging” tomorrow. Adults in this country can join meaningful organizations without going through 8 weeks of a secret process to learn the “truth” about an organization and demonstrate one’s merit to belong. It’s a ridiculous notion, and a number of studies have documented its interference with academic performance. African American fraternities banned pledging back around 1990, and, from personal experience, it’s had an obvious impact on the number of deaths and the severity of injuries. There are a number of other obvious reforms that could and should be implemented by fraternities, immediately.
What is the significance of ‘willingness to participate’ or the consent component of hazing when holding students, organizations, and institutions accountable?
It’s very important because it is essentially codifying the reality that hazing involves an imbalance/abuse of power and coercion. Among many things, it uses and/or distorts concepts of family, friendship, advancement, and, often, normal insecurities to compel people to engage in dangerous activities. After that dangerous misconduct results in injury or death, a statute or school policy that renders consent irrelevant can help with the civil and criminal litigation that results because it can preclude the wrongdoer from blaming the victim, which is often the primary strategy used by wrongdoers to evade legal responsibility. For example, in many types of cases involving civil justice, the consent of the victim precludes and/or limits a lawsuit against others for damages. It has a similar effect to cases involving statutory rape, whereby, given the age of the victim, the perpetrator cannot evade responsibility by claiming that the victim consented. It’s a way of ensuring that justice is served given the nature of the wrongdoing and public policy.
How might federal legislation, the REACH Act, help to prevent hazing and additional hazing tragedies at colleges and universities?
One of the most important provisions of the law requires disclosure by universities of incidents and findings of hazing, which will help people understand the problem and, likely prevent students from joining organizations that are dangerous. Institutions and organizations that are revealed as being dangerous may suffer drops in enrollment and membership and may be incentivized to change.
In your opinion, how could the transparency of hazing at institutions and amongst organizations be increased?
It starts with universities telling the full truth about the risks, in addition to the promotion of fraternities that they’re currently doing. The full truth doesn’t mean snippets of information. It means detailed descriptions of the fraternity/sorority incidents that threaten or cause serious risk, injuries and death. It also needs to be required of fraternities/sororities either by law or as a condition of obtaining status as a recognized student organization (and obtaining the benefits of such status). Only then will concerned students, families, and administrators be able to see the incidents across the country, as requiring disclosures by universities will create silos of information and keep people from knowing how poorly managed and/or dangerous a fraternity/sorority is when the misconduct of all chapters is considered. That is important for a student/family considering fraternity membership at a particular university, even if there have been no incidents of wrongdoing at that specific school.
What can local and campus police investigators do to ensure hazing investigations are comprehensive?
It starts with understanding the law and discarding the age-old notion that the alcohol-related death of a young student at a fraternity house is just a par-for-the-course example of someone who bears the blame for the tragedy because they voluntarily consumed the alcohol and didn’t know their limits. Police should also immediately seize cell phones, other technology, and gain/access passwords to chat groups because fraternities and fraternity members begin covering up the truth immediately. Without gaining access to this type of information, investigations are irrevocably hindered by the oaths of loyalty members take towards each other and other efforts to prevent the truth from being discovered. Virtually every family that has lost a child to hazing has seen evidence of cover-ups and lies to obfuscate the truth and prevent justice.
What is a piece of advice you would give to students and their family members as they consider joining a student organization, club, or team at school?
Knowledge is power. Do the research on the organizations, locally and nationally. Go to and demand information from the Office of Greek Affairs, and ask if there is other information from different offices involving claims of sexual assault and misconduct causing injuries.
Google information locally and nationally using search terms as:
[Insert fraternity name] and death; [Insert fraternity name] and hazing; [Insert fraternity name] and alcohol; [Insert fraternity name] and injury; [Insert fraternity name] and suspension; [Insert fraternity name] and sexual assault; and, [Insert fraternity name] and rape. That’s a start.
Take Action Now!
It is clear more needs to be done to prevent hazing. You can help put an end to these senseless acts and behaviors that result in harm and tragedy by supporting the REACH Act — federal legislation that can help prevent hazing at colleges and universities through transparency, consistent reporting structures, and education on the issue.
Complete this quick form to send your representatives a message urging them to cosponsor the REACH Act, preventing hazing and helping keep students safe at school.