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Gymnastics Injury Settles for Policy Limits Despite Waiver

A gymnastics facility’s failure to appropriately design and maintain a foam landing pit leads to a catastrophic cervical spinal cord injury and partial paralysis. While attending a paid, open gym session where participants could use various equipment, our client attempted a round-off backflip into a pit filled with foam blocks and hit his head on the pit’s back wall, resulting in a C-6 burst fracture.

Despite a signed liability waiver, which the defense contended required proof of reckless or wanton conduct under Kansas law, the case settled for the gymnastics center’s $1 million policy limits. Scott Nutter and Douglas Bradley represented the 20-year-old Army soldier.

During discovery, an inspection of the gymnastics facility revealed that the landing pit was 14 feet long, six feet short of recommendations in safety manuals published by USA Gymnastics, which provides industry guidelines and standards. Surveillance video obtained early in our investigation captured the accident and confirmed that our client would not have struck his head had the pit been six feet long.

The surveillance video also showed that our client’s take-off was affected by what appeared to be a soft floor. The facility inspection revealed that a layer of foam flooring hung at least four inches beyond the front end of the landing pit, preventing our client from jumping from a solid base when he attempted the flip.

This weakened defendant’s comparative fault argument that our client failed to perform a proper tumbling maneuver and provided a design/maintenance claim against the facility. Other negligence theories focused on a lack of competent supervision and not having adequate foam cubes in the pit to prevent gymnasts from hitting the pit’s walls.

The gymnastics facility moved for summary judgment because our client had signed a liability waiver. We argued that under Kansas law, liability waivers cannot excuse reckless and wanton conduct and that the facility’s failure to follow industry standards went beyond ordinary negligence. We also argued that the liability waiver was not enforceable against the ordinary negligence claims, because it contained broad language and should not apply given the totality of the circumstances.

During our investigation, we learned that gymnastics facilities often do not comply with safety recommendations and guidelines for their equipment. Gymnastics facilities also often have open gym sessions where untrained and inexperienced gymnasts can use dangerous equipment with minimal supervision. Practitioners should keep these considerations in mind when reviewing a potential personal injury claim involving a gymnastics facility.

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