Yesterday the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously ruled in a lawsuit brought by Brittany Noffke, a varsity basketball cheerleader at Holmen High School in western Wisconsin. While practicing a stunt for the first time before a basketball game in 2004, she fell backwards off the shoulders of another cheerleader and suffered a head injury. She then filed a lawsuit against the 16-year-old male cheerleader who was supposed to be her spotter but failed to catch her, as well as the school district and its insurer. Noffke claimed that the coach was negligent for failing to supervise the stunt and not making sure that mats were being used. (The court ruling can be found here.)
Justice Annette Ziegler rejected Noffke’s argument that contact sports were limited to aggressive sports. In her opinion, she wrote that lawmakers meant to limit liability for “any recreational activity that includes physical contact between persons in a sport involving amateur teams.” Zeigler said that cheerleading involves “a significant amount of physical contact between the cheerleaders that at times results in a forceful interaction between the participants.”
This decision means that cheerleaders can only be sued for acting recklessly in causing injuries, and that Noffke’s teammate’s actions were only a mistake.
Ziegler also said that the district cannot be sued for the coach’s behavior under Wisconsin law that shields government agencies from lawsuits for the actions of employees. The coach had no duty to make sure a spotter was in place or to provide mats and the stunt was not a “known and compelling danger,” the court said.
I have to say, when I saw the headline on the bottom of the TV: “Court rules cheerleading is contact sport,” I thought, “Come on, what’s this about!” But as I read over the case and thought about it, the court is right. Nowhere in the law does it state that the contact has to be between members of different teams. It’s a law meant to protect students from accidents (not negligence), and that’s what happened here.
If you fail to catch somebody, that’s not on purpose (normally). It is possible to let somebody fall when you’re there to catch them, and that should be protected under the law. Cheerleading isn’t a simple and easy sport, so I think the dangers do need to be carefully looked at, and if you take the risk of participating, you have to live with the fact that you might get injured.