The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Brittany Noffke, a high school cheerleader who was injured when she fell from the top of a formation during a practice, cannot sue the teammate responsible for spotting her. The court also upheld a lower court's decision that she cannot sue her school district for the coach's alleged lack of supervision.
In 2004, the Holmen (Wis.) High School cheerleading squad was practicing a three-person stunt during a pregame warm-up in the Commons, an indoor area without carpeting or mats. Noffke was on top of the base and Kevin Bakke was supposed to spot her, but Bakke mistakenly moved forward rather than back, and was in the wrong position to catch Noffke, who fell backward and hit her head on the floor.
The circuit court dismissed Noffke's claims, reasoning that Bakke's actions were neither reckless nor intended to harm Noffke, and in any event that cheerleading is covered by the state's Recreational Immunity Law, which limits the liability of people who participate in "contact sports." The state Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court ruling that the school and the district could not be sued, but concluded that Noffke could proceed with her lawsuit against her teammate. The appeals court reasoned that because there is no opponent involved, cheerleading is not a contact sport within the meaning of the statute. Both Noffke and Bakke appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court granted both petitions for review.
In her petition, Noffke argued that the school and district should not be granted governmental immunity because the cheerleading coach's negligence in allowing inexperienced cheerleaders to try a stunt without safety equipment breached a ministerial duty. In his petition, Bakke argued that cheerleading is, in fact, a contact sport, and that the Recreational Immunity Law bars Noffke's lawsuit against him — and the state Supreme Court agreed.