When cheerleading goes bad

Sports coaches don’t always have the world’s happiest job.  Every coach from the New England Patriots down to the Bullamakanka Netball Club gets castigated by supporters when the team fails to win.  And when things go really bad off the sporting field, every decision that lead there may be scrutinised as well.

group of cheerleader on green field
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On 27 December 2014 Kristen Galuardi, a pupil of Trumbull High School in Connecticutt, was engaged in a practice at the Fairfield Gymnastics and Cheerleading Academy.  It was alleged that the team’s director made two critical decisions in setting up the training.  First, one of the team was permitted to train in socks without shoes.  Second, the team were practising without spotters.  When Galuardi was thrown into the air, her team-mates attempted to catch her.  The team-mate wearing socks slipped and Galuardi hit the floor, suffering injuries.  She lost consciousness, but (it was alleged) the manager declined to seek medical assistance for her.

Galuardi sued for her injuries.  The case settled at the door of the Court for an undisclosed sum.  It is always difficult to draw lessons from a case that resolves by agreement rather than judgment; nevertheless, a few points can be made –

  • The fact that an activity is sporting rather than (say) work-related does not reduce the standard of care on administrators: Wilson v O’Gorman High School (2008).
  • Coaches should not increase the risks inherent in sports participation, at least outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in teaching or coaching the sport: Honeycutt v Meridian Sports Club LLC (2014).

Note: this report is largely based on the report in the Trumbull Times.

Galuardi v Town of Trumbull and Gymnastics & Cheerleading Academy (Superior Court of Connecticutt, 2019)

Wilson v O’Gorman High School (2008) H&FLR 2014-50

Andrea Wilson v O’Gorman High School and Others (2008) H&FLR 2014-50

United States District Court (District of South Dakota)

26 June 2008

Coram: Schreier CJ

Appearing for the plaintiff: Steve Landon (of Cadwell Sanford Deibert & Garry LLP)
Appearing for the Defendants: Jim McMahon (of Murphy, Goldammer & Prendergast, LLP)

Catchwords: South Dakota – gymnastics – coaching – injury – standard of care – assumption of risk

Facts: The plaintiff was a gymnast and took part in high school gymnastics with the defendant. On 22 January 2003 as part of school gymnastic training she was practicing a manoeuvre known as the “reverse hecht” under the supervision of a coach supplied by the school. She had attempted the manoeuvre about thirty times that day. On her final attempt she released the bar late and fell, suffering severe injuries.

The plaintiff brought proceedings in negligence against the school and coach, alleging (inter alia) that the coach had attempted to instruct her in the reverse hecht despite not being trained to do so, that he had failed to prevent her practicing the manoeuvre as many as thirty times, and that he had not moved her to a foam pit where she could more safely practice the manoeuvre despite her multiple failed attempts.

The defendants disputed the applicable standard of care and also asserted voluntary assumption of risk and contributory negligence. The defendants sought summary dismissal of her claim.

Held: Refusing the application for summary judgment –

1. To establish negligence a plaintiff must establish that there was a duty on the part of defendants, that they failed to meet that duty, and that this failure resulted in injury*.

Kuehl v Horner (JW) Lumber Co, 678 NW.2d 809 (SD 2004), followed.

2. The standard of care is not reduced for people engaged in sporting activities, like coaches or sports administrators. The general standard of care applies.

Kahn v East Side Union High School District, 75 P.3d 30 (Cal. 2003), not followed.
Gasper v Freidel, 450 NW.2d 226 (SD 1990), distinguished.
Rantapaa v Black Hills Chair Lift Co, 633 NW.2d 196 (SD 2001), considered.

3. Application of the general negligence standard still allows the defendant to allege assumption of risk.  To succeed on this basis a defendant must show that the plaintiff had actual or constructive knowledge of the risk, appreciated its character, and voluntarily accepted the risk (having had the time, knowledge, and experience to make an intelligent choice). However, a plaintiff is not obliged to anticipate the negligent conduct of others.

Goepfert v Filler, 563 NW.2d 140 (SD 1997) and Ray v Downes, 576 NW.2d 896 (SD 1998), followed.

Judgment
The Court’s judgment is available here.
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* The defendants did not dispute that they owed the plaintiff a duty of care.