The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that cheerleading is a contact sport like footballs and therefore participants cannot be sued for accidentally causing injuries. Brittany Noffke, a former varsity cheerleader at Holmen High School in Wisconsin, sued her spotter after she was allowed to fall backwards off the shoulders of a team member, causing a serious head injury.
The accident occurred in 2004 and Noffke was a so-called “flyer” who is thrown in certain moves. She sued Kevin Bakke, a 16-year-old male student for his negligence as well as the school district. Both are now barred in a decision that will likely be greeted warmly by school districts around the country. Cheerleading injuries have caused growing concerns over the risks of many high throws and impressive moves being used by teams. With growing calls for no limitations to be placed on the sport, this ruling significantly reduces the potential liability for such accidents, at least in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court was unanimously in its ruling written by Justice Annette Ziegler, who held that cheerleading involves “a significant amount of physical contact between the cheerleaders.” The case turned on the interpretation of immune provisions contained in Wis. Stat. § 895.525(4m)(a), which extends immunity to players who participate in contact sports. Here is the statute:
Subsection (4m)(a), Liability of Contact Sports Participants, provides:
A participant in a recreational activity that includes physical contact between persons in a sport
involving amateur teams, including teams in recreational, municipal, high school and college leagues, may be liable for an injury inflicted on another participant during and as part of that sport in a tort action only if the participant who caused the injury acted recklessly or with intent to cause
The court explores the rules and moves of cheerleading before concluding that it is a contact sport.
The court then finds that the coach and school district are also cloaked in immunity. The only exceptions recognized are for “for those acts associated with: (1) the performance of ministerial duties imposed by law; (2) known and compelling dangers that give rise to ministerial duties on the part of public officers or employees; (3) acts involving medical discretion; and (4) acts that are malicious, willful, and intentional.” The first two exceptions were claimed in this case and rejected.
Yet, finding that a sport is a contact sport does not necessarily mean that all lawsuits are barred. Presumably, there remains intentional torts and notions of gross negligence. More importantly, negligence by schools in the training or supervision of the students would presumably still be possible as the basis for a lawsuit. More notably, the court rejects the idea that safety rules require a spotter and thus are ministerial duties. The court found that such rules are guidelines left to the discretion of the coach — a very significant ruling that will likely to be cited across the country.
For a copy of the opinion, click here.
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