Court Applies Ordinary Negligence Standard in Cheerleader Injury Case

May 19, 2006

A state court judge in Massachusetts has left the door open for a plaintiff, who sued the University of Massachusetts for negligence after she injured herself during a cheerleading stunt.
In denying the university’s motion for summary judgment, the court found that the “supervision” that the plaintiff advocated would not have “interfered” with the activity she participated in. Thus, the court chose to apply an “ordinary negligence standard” and reviewed the motion in a light most favorable to the plaintiff.
The incident occurred on August 2, 2001 when the plaintiff was a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The plaintiff was participating in a cheerleading practice under the guidance of a university employee, Coach Kevin Thompson. Thompson instructed the plaintiff, a freshman, to participate in a 2 1/2 level pyramid stunt.
Thompson used spotters for the stunt, which is actually illegal at the high school level. But he neglected to put a spotter in the rear, believing that “if the plaintiff were thrown too far she would likely fall off the front, not the rear.”
The plaintiff fell, landing to the rear, suffering serious fractures of the right tular neck and the fibula. “The effects have been disabling: She will never be a cheerleader again, and has been advised never to run again,” wrote the court.
The plaintiff sued Thompson and the university.
Reviewing Thompson’s motion for summary judgment first, the court noted that he was a “W-2 employee and that his duties included coaching the cheerleading squad. He was, therefore, a ‘public employee’ within the meaning of G.L.c. 258, § 2, and as such is immune from suit. His motion for summary judgment is therefore allowed.”
Turning to the university’s motion, the defendant university argued that “because the accident took place in the context of a sporting event, its conduct ought to be assessed according to the rule of Gauvin v. Clark, 404 Mass. 450, 537 N.E.2d 94 (1989), and that under that rule, it cannot be held liable except upon a showing of willful, wanton or reckless conduct.”
The court wrote that “the problem of imposing a duty of care on participants in a sports competition is a difficult one. Players, when they engage in sport, agree to undergo some physical contacts, which could amount to assault and battery absent the players’ consent. The courts are wary of imposing wide tort liability on sports participants, lest the law chill the vigor of athletic competition. Nevertheless, ‘some of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete onto the playing field.’
In the instant case, the court found it highly relevant that “the plaintiff was not engaged in competition at the time of her accident.” Further, “the supervision she advocates would not interfere with the activity she was engaged in, even had it been at a game or a cheerleading competition rather than a practice.
“I do not read Gauvin and its progeny as suggesting that willfulness, wantonness or recklessness must be shown in every accident that takes place in or around a sporting event. So far as I am aware, no Massachusetts case has gone so far, and at least one SJC decision–albeit antedating Gauvin–appears directly antithetical to the University’s position. Everett v. Bucky Warren, Inc., 376 Mass. 280, 287-88, 380 N.E.2d 653 (1978) (school liable in negligence where coach supplied player with defective helmet); see also Moose v. Massachusetts Inst. of Technology, 43 Mass.App.Ct. 420, 425, 683 N.E.2d 706 (1997) (university and its track coaches liable in negligence to injured pole vaulter, where design of landing pit was unsafe and plaintiff was equipped with a training pole too light for his weight); Alter v. City of Newton, 35 Mass.App.Ct. 142, 617 N.E.2d 656 (1993) (claim by passer-by struck by lacrosse ball, allegedly due to Town’s negligent failure to warn and/or to properly locate goal); Lautieri v. Bae, 17 Mass. L. Rptr. 4, 2003 WL 22454645 (Mass. Super. 2003; Fishman, J.) (claim against organizers of triathlon for negligence in course layout, signage, and supervision).
“The application of a legal rule should not overreach its rationale. Applying, therefore, an ordinary negligence standard, the evidence–taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff–would support a finding of liability. The University’s motion for summary judgment is therefore denied.”
AnnMarie Torres v. University of Massachusetts et al.; S.Ct. Mass. at Suffolk; Opinion No.: 91682, Docket Number: 04-2377; 20 Mass. L. Rep. 310; 2005 Mass. Super. LEXIS 611; 12/21/05


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