Court rules cheerleading is contact sport

Updated: January 27, 2009, 2:27 PM ET
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. -- High school cheerleading is a contact sport and therefore its participants cannot be sued for accidentally causing injuries, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a case being closely watched in the cheerleading world.

The court ruled that a former high school cheerleader cannot sue a teammate who failed to stop her fall while she was practicing a stunt.

The court also said the injured cheerleader cannot sue her school district.

Justice Annette Ziegler said cheerleading involves "a significant amount of physical contact between the cheerleaders."

The National Cheer Safety Foundation said the decision is the first of its kind in the nation.

At issue in the case was whether cheerleaders qualify for immunity under a Wisconsin law that prevents participants in contact sports from suing each other for unintentional injuries.

It does not spell out which sports are contact sports. The District 4 Court of Appeals ruled last year cheerleading doesn't qualify because there's no contact between opposing teams.

But all seven members of the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to overturn that decision. In the opinion, Justice Annette Ziegler said cheerleading involves "a significant amount of physical contact between the cheerleaders." As an example, she cited stunts in which cheerleaders are tossed in the air.

The lawsuit was brought by Brittany Noffke, who was a varsity cheerleader at Holmen High School in western Wisconsin. Practicing a stunt in 2004, Noffke fell backward off the shoulders of another cheerleader and suffered a serious head injury.

She sued a 16-year-old male teammate who was supposed to be her spotter but failed to catch her. She also sued the school district and the district's insurer.

Ziegler rejected Noffke's argument that "contact sports" should mean only aggressive sports such as football and hockey. Ziegler, in the court's ruling, wrote they should include any sport that includes "physical contact between persons."

The decision means cheerleaders can be sued only for acting recklessly. The court said Noffke's teammate only made a mistake or showed a lack of skill.

As for the school district, Ziegler said it cannot be sued for the coach's behavior under a Wisconsin law that shields government agencies from lawsuits for the actions of employees.

Many observers had warned that families of cheerleaders would be forced to take out big insurance policies if the lower court decision stood.

Because of the increasingly difficult stunts, injuries among high school cheerleaders are a problem.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that two-thirds of the roughly 100 cases of "catastrophic" sports injuries among high school girls since 1982 have involved cheerleading.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press