MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- 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.
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 didn't qualify because there's no contact between opposing teams.
But all seven members of the Supreme Court agreed 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. While 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; 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. She wrote they should include any sport that that includes "physical contact between persons."
"I think it's groundbreaking, but I'm disappointed in the result," said attorney Tracy Tool, who represented Noffke.
Tool would not elaborate on Noffke's injuries or say if she has fully recovered.
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.
More than 95,000 female students and 2,100 male students take part in high school cheerleading every year, according to the North Carolina researchers.
Most state athletic governing bodies do not regulate cheerleading. Those that do make a distinction between "competitive spirit squads" and sideline cheerleading, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The group writes voluntary rules for cheerleading that do not have the force of law.
"There's a lot of gray area about whether it's a sport or an activity," said spokesman Bruce Howard.
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