Two People Die in Separate Eating Competitions in Connecticut and Colorado

caitlin-nelson-facebook-3image1_1491240579424_9136742_ver1.0We have previously discussed (and here and here)the liability issues associated with eating competitions.  This week we have see two deaths in pancake eating and doughnut eating competitions.  Caitline Nelson, 20, died at a fraternity and sorority event at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.  Travis Malouff, 42, died in a giant donut competition in Denver, Colorado.

Nelson collapsed during the fundraising event in Fairfield, Connecticut.  She had eaten four to five pancakes.  Two nursing students tried to revive her but she died three days later.  Nelson was the vice president of her sorority at Sacred Heart University.

The Nelson family has previously dealt with terrible grief after Caitlin’s father, John Nelson, died as a Port Authority police officer on 9-11.  She is shown below with her father and was only 5 years old when her father died.


In Denver, Colorado, Malouff entered an eating contest run by the new Voodoo Doughnuts in Denver. He tried to eat a giant doughnut in less than 80 seconds as part of the shop’s “Tex-Ass Challenge.”  The doughnut is the size of six regular doughnuts. The winners get a free meal and a free button.

The medial examiner found he died from “asphyxia, due to obstruction of the airway.” 

These contests raise obvious defenses of assumption of the risk for participants, who clearly understand the danger of choking and the health implications of eating dozens of hot dogs. Even in states that have curtailed implied assumption of the risk, there is likely waivers signed before most large competitions and sponsors are protected under comparative negligence principles. Hot dog competitions always struck me as particularly risky. Pie eating contests involve a food that is less likely to cause choking. Indeed, some of the less common eating contests would seem ideal for minimizing choking hazards from the grits eating contest in South Carolina to the Gyoza (Dumpling) Eating Championship in California to the Cheese Curd Festival in Wisconsin to the Annual Testicle Festival in Montana. Wolfing down deep fried bull testicles may be more of a social than a medical hazard.

In the end, it is the decision of the participants in assuming such risks. Nevertheless, these contests present heightened choking and heart attack risks.

Is it negligence to offer such competitions in your view?

27 thoughts on “Two People Die in Separate Eating Competitions in Connecticut and Colorado”

  1. I never understood the appeal of these contests, but the Media and they exist for the Media thrive on them. Nathans hot dog stupidity comes to mind. The Thai’s have a chili pepper eating contest where the contestants sit in huge barrels of water surrounded by the chili’s again it’s a Media driven event.

  2. I do not believe it would be considered negligence? For instance in the case of criminal negligence the view would be that one was acting in such a way that substantial risk was not adequately perceived, the risk must be such that it is a gross deviation from the standard of care expected of a reasonable person acting in similar circumstances.

    Northern Pacific Railway V. Adams (1904), Justice Brewer wrote. “Negligence is the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided upon those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do, provided, of course that the party whose conduct is in question is already in a situation that brings him under the duty of taking care.”

    I personally do no believe that it would be possible to say that there would be an expectation of a reasonable person that someone would choke and pass from eating pancakes, or that special mitigation would be required to prevent that.

    I think if there was say a “cinnamon challenge” contest organized somewhere for example you would have a different result. A reasonable person would likely be expected to foresee that could be, and would be likely to have serious risk associated with an event like that, and that it would be negligent to hold an event of that sort.

  3. Even with the contestant signing an indemnity clause, if I were running such a competition I would want ot have a vacuum aspirator available and a trained med tech. If a person is choking or passes out, you still have a couple of minutes to clear the airway, and the aspirator + med tech can easily handle that situation.
    I believe the indemnity clause prevails legally, but once it becomes well known to event organizers, their insurers and contestants that choking incidents can be handled with the right precautions, then I believe a standard of prevention will evolve to the point where a jury will accept not providing that standard is defacto negligence. We’re not there yet, but could be after these kind of catastrophes.

  4. Evel Knievel comes to mind. Part of what makes competitions interesting is what is being risked and of course the reward. I see videos of kids walking and hanging untethered on the ledge of some skyscraper or someone free-climbing a rock face and my first thought is why take the risk; to get Youtube or FB likes? I did stuff like that as a kid and the only way anyone would have known about it is if I failed. Oh well, let them compete, a lot of really cool things we have today are because someone pushed the envelope.

  5. These contests touch on the Darwin Awards idea of thinning the gene pool, by weeding out the stupid….

  6. These contests should be banned.
    Not because of the hazard, because of the waste of food.
    Just like those ‘biggest hotdog in the world’-type of events.
    Sick’s the word.

  7. You could probably make the same (weak) case with any sort of competitive activity. Runners die of exhaustion, heart attack or injuries, no one raises a peep. Bicycle racing is fairly dangerous as well. I don’t see much difference in principle between those and eating competitions.

  8. Tragic.

    To see if this is really a problem, one needs to compare the numbers of these deaths to how many contests are held every year, over a very long time. Any event is going to have something go wrong if there are enough of them and given sufficient time.

    I don’t see any need to regulate everything or that each tragedy has a legal consequence to some party. Simply put, part of life is accepting that bad events occur. We can either live in a sanitized bubble, or we can enjoy life in fashions we are free to choose among.

  9. Four pancakes, and then she died?
    Can’t win a contest with that kind of stamina.

    1. Pancakes are like sponges – you can compress them, swallow them, and then they blow back up – at least that’s how it seems to me when *I* eat them.

  10. Didn’t girls used to kiss guys for $1 in the old days to raise money for good causes?

    1. That’s worse. You could pick up all sorts of nasty, incurable germs by that.

  11. I do not think the college should be involved in an activity like this. The other is assume the risk.

  12. It looks like these contests are open to adults and as adults should be mature enough to accept responsibility for their actions. It is customary for people these days to place blame on others, contest organizers, food producers and the like. This is a societal problem. Adults act more and more like “stupid children” and therefore “need protection”. Instead of eating contests, why not fill a giant clear jug or bottle with a food substance and let people guess the amount? Viola, no more choking hazards. Could it be more simple?

  13. This is not negligence, but rather the offering of a choice on the free market. In a truly free society, people must be free to harm themselves. Years ago, I accepted the offer of a small restaurant in a beach town, to eat an omelette made with twelve eggs. The prize was to be a free meal. Although I am particularly fond of eggs, I nevertheless began to feel bloated well before I had finished the omelette. Yet I did – and nothing happened to me. Had I become sick, I should most certainly have blamed myself, and not the restaurant.

Comments are closed.