Were You Paralyzed in a Cheerleading Accident?

Injuries from cheerleading accidents can cause serious long-term health problems, especially for children and teenagers whose bodies are still developing. In the worst possible scenarios, cheerleading injuries may even lead to paralysis or death.

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cheerleader paralysis

Injuries from cheerleading accidents can cause serious long-term health problems, especially for children and teenagers whose bodies are still developing. In the worst possible scenarios, cheerleading injuries may even lead to paralysis or death.

When you hear about someone suffering a catastrophic injury or being paralyzed from the neck down, you probably assume the victim was involved in a motor vehicle crash, a fall on a construction site, or possibly even a football-related accident. It probably never crosses your mind that the accident victim could be a cheerleader doing what she does every day – being thrown 20 feet into the air and trusting her teammates to catch her on the way down. The unfortunate truth is, they may not. Cheerleading may not be officially recognized as a sport, but it is one of the most dangerous physical activities young female athletes can take part in. Sadly, as cheerleading becomes more and more competitive, the stunts performed by cheerleaders become increasingly more difficult and technical and the risk of catastrophic injury grows. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, these cheerleading injuries can even result in “permanent brain injury, paralysis, or death.”

If you or someone you love was paralyzed or suffered a permanent disability in a cheerleading accident, you are not alone. Every year, tens of thousands of young women and girls are injured or hospitalized as a result of cheerleading, not to mention the growing number of catastrophic cheerleading injuries and preventable deaths which illustrate the importance of improving cheer safety. Our consumer advocates at Consumer Justice Foundation are committed to protecting the rights of innocent individuals harmed by negligent or reckless conduct, and we are here to help you get through this difficult time. Contact CJF today to find out if you are eligible to file a cheerleading accident claim against the person or entity whose negligence allegedly caused or contributed to yours or your loved one’s injuries. 

Cheerleading Accident Injuries and Deaths

There is a social stigma associated with cheerleading, due in large part to the fact that cheerleading is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport. Cheerleaders are expected to stand on the sidelines, look pretty, and support the “real” athletes out on the field or court. What few people realize though, is that like most competitive sports, cheerleading carries an inherent risk of injury. In fact, “cheerleading has had a higher rate of injury over time than 23 of the 24 sports recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the exception being football,” notes a Time article, citing data from a 2019 study of catastrophic sports injuries conducted by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (NCCSIR). In fact, cheerleading is the number one cause of catastrophic injuries among female athletes. 

An injury is classified as “catastrophic” if it causes permanent spinal injury and paralysis, which unfortunately, many cheerleading injuries do, especially when compared to popular competitive sports like basketball, gymnastics, and soccer. Between 1982 and 2008, there were a whopping 73 catastrophic injuries in cheerleading, including two deaths, compared to just nine catastrophic injuries in gymnastics, two in soccer, and four in basketball, during that same period of time. The following are just some of the devastating and potentially life-threatening injuries that can occur as a result of a cheerleading accident: 

  • Broken bones 
  • Severe fractures
  • Head and neck injury
  • Back injury
  • Skull fractures
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Organ damage
  • Memory loss
  • Concussion
  • Internal bleeding
  • Permanent disability
  • Paralysis
  • Wrongful death

Why are Cheerleading Accidents So Common?

Thanks in large part to increased awareness and education surrounding cheerleading safety, the rate of catastrophic injuries among cheerleaders has actually dropped a great deal over the past two decades. Still, the 2019 (NCCSIR) report ranked cheerleading second behind only football in catastrophic injury risk for both high school and college athletes, and there are growing concerns about the long-term consequences of these types of injuries among cheerleaders, many of which occur during practices rather than competitions. “We have seen some evidence that female athletes may take longer to recover from head injuries than male athletes,” said Dr. Dennis Cardone, co-director of NYU Langone’s Sport Health Concussion Center, in a 2019 interview with The Post. 

Furthermore, because of cheerleading’s long-debated status as a non-sport, there is generally less oversight and fewer resources on hand for cheer squads. According to Cardone, this means that there “may not be proper trainers on hand during practices.” And because most states consider cheerleading an “activity” and not an official sport, there is no uniform regulation of cheerleading facilities, safety equipment, or training for coaches. “Cheerleading is out of control,” says Dr. Frederick Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. “Kids are practicing all over the place without mats. They practice when they want to, do what they want to, and some coaches aren’t certified and don’t know what they’re doing.” 

Possible Causes of Cheerleading Accidents

Cheerleading has evolved from a leisurely sideline activity to a high-intensity semi-sport for elite athletes, and cheerleaders often feel pressured to push themselves past their limits and make their routines more and more impressive and technical, incorporating complicated choreography and risky spins, flips, and twists. Unfortunately, this often occurs without proper safety precautions or supervision from trained coaches, which significantly increases the risk of injury. In fact, when compared to sports like football, which has nearly 10 times as many participants, cheerleading accounts for a disproportionate amount of severe injuries – more than 50% of all catastrophic injuries in female high school athletes, according to a 2017 report from SportsMeg.org. And all too often, these catastrophic cheerleading injuries are the result of carelessness or negligence on the part of another person or entity, such as a coach, trainer or school. The following are some common causes of catastrophic cheerleading accidents and injuries in the U.S.:

  • Inexperienced spotters
  • Unqualified or poorly trained coaches
  • Cheerleaders being pressured to perform stunts they aren’t ready for
  • Cheerleaders being pressured to perform while injured or ill
  • Lack of safety measures in schools
  • Inadequate supervision
  • Stunting on hard surfaces (i.e. grass, turf, asphalt, a gym floor or a rubberized track)
  • Poor training
  • Improper technique
  • Failure to report or properly address injuries
  • Lack of proper medical equipment or emergency medical plans in case of an accident
  • Inadequate spotting by teammates
  • Lack of proper safety equipment (i.e. floor mats)
  • Absence of skilled trainers at practices
  • Lack of financial resources to purchase safety equipment

Cheerleading Accident Cases in the U.S.

Gone are the days when cheerleaders were expected to wave their poms-poms in the air, dance, and cheer on football and basketball players from the sidelines. Cheerleading in the U.S. today is more like high-stakes gymnastics where young girls are expected to perform increasingly tricky stunts at the direction of untrained coaches and at the mercy of other young girls who may or may not be prepared to catch them, with or without landing mats in place to cushion them in case of a fall. In place of padded mats and a spring-loaded floor, which would be the ideal equipment to use for cheerleading activities, many cheerleaders end up practicing or performing stunts on hard gym floors, in their backyards, or in parking lots, where the risk of catastrophic injury is considerably higher. 

Even the cheerleaders doing the catching in stunts face a risk of severe injury or possibly even death just by standing underneath or near a human body plummeting head-, feet- or torso-first to the ground. The problem is, people don’t see cheerleaders as athletes at risk for catastrophic injuries. “People have no clue the level of athleticism [cheerleading requires], they see [cheerleaders] throw the girls in the air and they hold their breaths, but they don’t take the time to think about [what goes into it],” says Kimberly Archie, executive director of the National Cheer Safety Foundation, a parent-founded nonprofit organization dedicated to improving safety in cheerleading, minimizing the risk of injury, disability and death among cheerleaders, and assisting families affected by catastrophic cheerleading injuries. The following are just some of the tragic cheerleading accidents that have occurred in the U.S. in recent years:

  • A cheerleader for San Jose State, Rechelle Sneath, falls during practice in 2004 and is paralyzed from the waist down.
  • Ashley Burns, a 14-year-old cheerleader from Massachusetts, is struck by her teammates’ arms as she falls from a stunt during a practice session at a cheer gym in 2005. She suffers a lacerated spleen and dies before her mother even arrives at the hospital.
  • Jessica Smith, a 17-year-old “flyer” for a cheer squad at Sacramento City College in California falls head-first about 15 feet after a stunt goes wrong, fracturing her spine.
  • Patty Phommanyvong, 17, is paralyzed after being hit in the chest during a catch while cheering for a Los Angeles high school football team in 2007. There was no working defibrillator available at the stadium, and by the time the ambulance arrived on the scene 30 minutes after the accident, Phommanyvong had suffered irreversible brain damage. 
  • Lauren Chang, a 20-year-old Massachusetts resident, dies after being accidentally kicked in the chest by a teammate while performing a “basket catch” routine at a cheer competition. The kick reportedly caused her lungs to collapse. 
  • Shelby, a junior high school student, suffers two concussions as a result of failed cheerleading stunts – the first from body-to-body contact with a teammate and the second from contact with the floor. She is diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and over the next several years, experiences difficulty with focusing, multitasking, and short-term memory. Her story is shared by the CDC as part of a campaign to raise awareness about the high rate of head injuries in cheerleading.
  • Indianapolis high school student Macy Huff is confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down, after suffering a broken neck and severe spinal cord injury in a 2013 cheerleading accident. 
  • Longtime cheerleader Kaitlyn Behnke is forced to quit cheerleading after suffering five concussions over 15 years – the first at age 13. Even after giving up her lifelong passion, she continues to suffer from headaches and short-term memory issues.

Preventing Catastrophic Cheerleading Injuries

The complicated, high-flying stunts today’s cheerleaders are expected to execute at the drop of a hat require a high degree of skill in gymnastics, tumbling, and acrobatics, and it is important for coaches and trainers to have adequate training, as well as specialized coaching certifications, in order to keep cheerleaders safe. It is also imperative that schools and cheer facilities provide the proper safety equipment to prevent serious cheerleading accidents. The following are just some of the ways cheer coaches, high schools, colleges, and other cheer venues and facilities can reduce the risk of paralysis and other devastating injuries or fatalities in cheerleading:

  • Ensure cheer coaches, trainers and instructors have adequate training in gymnastics or acrobatics, as well as first aid and CPR certifications.
  • Only permit cheer squads to conduct practice sessions on a spring-loaded floor or in other designated areas equipped with adequate cushioning, padding or landing mats.
  • Discourage cheerleaders from performing risky stunts without proper supervision and experienced spotters in place. 
  • Restrict the types of stunt routines cheerleaders are permitted to perform on the sidelines during athletic events, where there are no landing pads in place in case of falls. 
  • Discourage cheerleaders from practicing or competing if they are fatigued, injured or ill. 
  • Ensure that injured cheerleaders receive appropriate medical care right away, especially those with head, neck or back injuries.

Pursuing Compensation for Cheerleading Paralysis Accidents

Who is Liable for Cheerleading Accidents?

Cheerleading has become such a competitive and physically demanding activity that cheerleaders who want to be invited to competitions and perform at the highest levels feel pressured to incorporate a higher degree of difficulty and risk into their routines. This translates to more demanding and dangerous tumbles, flips, twists and tosses, which increases the risk of catastrophic or possibly even fatal injuries, especially among squads that lack the necessary equipment, financial resources, or supervision by coaches trained in gymnastics and acrobatics. There have even been cases where cheerleaders suffered concussions and other serious injuries and, rather than being encouraged to seek immediate medical care, were instead pressured by their coaches or trainers to continue performing. When it comes down to it, most cheerleading accidents are entirely preventable, which is what makes cheerleader paralysis cases so incredibly devastating. The following are some examples of the people or entities that may be liable for damages in a cheerleading accident lawsuit. 

Coaches and Trainers

Just like any sport, accidents can happen in cheerleading. During a basket toss stunt, for instance, the flyer may miscalculate her timing and lose control of her descent, a base may make a misstep and be out of position to safely lift the flyer in the air, or a spotter may get distracted and miss catching the flyer as she falls. With these inherent risks in mind, cheer coaches and trainers are expected to provide a reasonably safe environment for cheerleaders, and that includes knowing what kinds of situations are likely to have disastrous results. When coaches and trainers push the limits and fail to follow the safety guidelines set forth by USA Cheer, which is the national governing body for cheerleading in the U.S., cheerleaders are the ones who suffer the consequences. Perhaps even more potentially dangerous than overly ambitious coaches though, are inexperienced or untrained coaches who expose cheerleaders to unnecessary risks simply because they don’t know any better. 

Schools/School Districts and Other Facilities

The safest and most successful cheerleading stunts require precision, planning, and hours of training at the direction of a skilled coach. In a perfect world, cheerleading coaches would be required to have cheer certifications and safety training, thus making them qualified to prevent major injuries or at least respond properly in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, the standards for coaching cheerleading in the U.S. are anything but consistent, and in many high schools and colleges, cheer coaches are former cheerleaders, or even parents. In some cheerleading accident cases where an injury or fatality occurs because of the actions of an unqualified coach or trainer, the coach or the school, school district, or cheer facility responsible for hiring or appointing the coach, may be liable for damages. 

Not all cheerleader paralysis accidents are the fault of the coach or trainer. In some unfortunate cases, cheerleaders make all the right moves and instructors follow all the recommended safety guidelines for cheerleading, and still an unexpected accident occurs during a cheer practice or competition. That is why schools and other cheer venues or facilities are expected to have emergency medical plans in place in order to quickly and efficiently respond to a medical emergency should a catastrophic cheerleading accident occur. After all, evidence suggests that rescue breathing and CPR may be crucial in saving a severely injured cheerleader’s life or in minimizing the extent of brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen in cheerleaders who have sustained a traumatic brain injury.

If a school or cheerleading facility fails to provide the proper safety equipment to protect cheerleaders from undue harm, such as cushioned floor mats, or functioning medical equipment in case of a medical emergency, and a serious cheerleading accident occurs, the accident victim or the victim’s family members may have grounds to sue the school, school district or cheer facility for negligence. 

Filing a Personal Injury or Wrongful Death Claim

The two main legal claims pertaining to cheerleading accident cases are personal injury claims and wrongful death claims, which can be brought against one or more negligent parties by injured cheerleading accident victims or, in the event of a fatal accident, the victim’s loved ones.

Personal Injury Claims

Personal injury lawsuits are meant to give victims of cheerleader paralysis accidents and other catastrophic cheer injuries the opportunity to hold the responsible party or parties accountable for their negligence and seek compensation for the harm they have suffered, also known as damages. 

Wrongful Death Claims

In the event of a tragic cheerleading fatality, family members grieving the death of a loved one may be able to recover compensation for their considerable losses by filing a wrongful death claim against the person or party legally liable for the fatality. In some cases, wrongful death claims can also engender change and help prevent similar tragedies from happening to others. 

How a Cheerleading Injury Lawsuit Can Help

At Consumer Justice Foundation, we believe that any person or party believed to be at fault for the injuries sustained by another person should be held accountable for their actions, even if the incident in question was an accident, and that includes those responsible for a cheerleader’s paralysis injuries. When it comes to cheerleading, schools and coaches are responsible for the safety and well-being of the cheerleaders who practice and compete under their instruction, direction or supervision, and when a cheerleading accident occurs, the cheer coach, school, school district, or any other allegedly negligent party may be legally liable for the victim’s injuries. Depending on the nature of the cheerleading accident and the extent of the injuries sustained by the victim, a personal injury lawsuit could help compensate accident victims for the following:

  • Medical bills
  • The cost of ongoing medical care
  • Pain and suffering
  • Lost wages
  • Loss of future earning capacity
  • Emotional trauma
  • Diminished quality of life

In the event of a cheerleading accident death, a wrongful death lawsuit could help the decedent’s loved ones (i.e. the cheerleader’s parents) recover some or all of the damages mentioned above, as well as compensation for funeral and burial expenses, loss of companionship, loss of financial support, and more. 

Cheerleading Accident Victims and Families Sue for Negligence

There are hundreds of thousands of cheerleaders across the country cheering at the high school, college and professional levels, and there are children as young as five participating in pee-wee cheerleading programs. Cheerleading has long been a favorite American pastime and it is more popular now than ever before, with millions of young people cheering at all skill levels nationwide. As cheerleading becomes more and more popular, cheerleading injuries are on the rise in the U.S., and there has been no shortage of lawsuits filed by cheerleading accident victims and their loved ones against those responsible for the catastrophic injuries suffered during cheer squad practices, sporting events, and competitions. 

  • In 2005, a former cheerleader at Keene State College brought a claim against the college and the University System of New Hampshire for a cheerleading accident that resulted in her quadriplegia. The claim states that at the time of the accident, the plaintiff, Emyne Gonzalez, along with her fellow cheerleading club members, was attempting to perform a “pyramid” at a cheer practice under the direction of their coach. While on top of the pyramid, Gonzalez reportedly fell and suffered serious injuries, which left her paralyzed from the neck down.
  • The family of Patty Phommanyvong, the high school cheerleader who suffered brain damage and was permanently paralyzed while cheering for a football game in 2007, filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District for negligence in the aftermath of the tragic accident. The lawsuit alleged that the cheerleader’s lifelong catastrophic injuries occurred as a result of the school’s failure to provide proper medical equipment and immediate care. By filing the lawsuit, the family sought to hold the school responsible for its alleged failure to respond properly to the teenager’s cheerleading injury.
  • In 2019, Melissa Martin, a former cheerleader at the University of California, Berkeley, filed a lawsuit against the university, her former coaches, and USA Cheer, claiming that she was bullied into performing stunts despite suffering multiple brain injuries. According to the claim, Martin’s coaches not only advised her against seeing a physician after she was kicked in the head during a practice session in October 2017, but pressured her to continue cheering and stunting. Martin went on to sustain three more concussions over the course of four months, all of which led to potentially permanent brain injuries and the need for ongoing medical care, not to mention forced academic leave from school, lost tuition, and other considerable losses.
  • Another cheerleading accident lawsuit was filed in 2020 by the parents of a former Illinois high school cheerleader who was severely injured while executing a “flyer stunt.” According to the claim, which accused the Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 school district of negligence, the cheerleader’s injuries occurred as a result of the cheer coaches’ failure to provide adequate safety protection. 
  • In one example of a cheerleading accident settlement that took place in California, a cheerleading organization agreed to pay $2 million in damages for the severe and permanent injuries a 12-year-old girl sustained during a beginner cheerleading class. According to the claim, the girl was lifted by her ankles during an unsupervised cheerleading stunt and fell backwards over a spotter’s shoulders. She suffered a subdural hemorrhage and developed spastic quadriplegia, which requires her to use a wheelchair. 

Hiring an Experienced Cheerleader Paralysis Lawyer

These tragic, preventable cheerleader paralysis cases and injury lawsuits offer just a glimpse into the general lack of safety protocols in place for cheerleaders, compared to other athletes, and the devastating consequences cheerleaders and their loved ones may face in the aftermath of a catastrophic injury. According to national statistics, cheerleading accounts for more than half – about 66% – of all catastrophic injuries among high school and college female athletes. 

If your child or another member of your family was paralyzed, severely injured or killed in a cheerleading accident caused by the negligence, carelessness, or wrongful acts of another person or party, do not hesitate to speak to an experienced attorney about your legal options. Our consumer advocates at the Consumer Justice Foundation are dedicated to protecting the rights of those who have been harmed by negligent or reckless persons or parties, and we can help put you in touch with a knowledgeable attorney with experience handling personal injury and wrongful death cases. Contact us today to learn more about what filing a cheerleading paralysis lawsuit could mean for you and your family.  

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