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Wiconsin Court: Cheerleading a Contact Sport, Participants Can't Be Sued for Accidental Injury

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 closely watched in the cheerleading world, the court ruled that a former high school cheerleader cannot sue a teammate who dropped her while practicing a stunt. The court also said the injured cheerleader cannot sue her school district for the coach's alleged lack of supervision.

A study released last year found cheerleading to be the most dangerous school sport.

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The National Cheer Safety Foundation said the decision is the first of its kind in the nation and could have implications for how the courts treat lawsuits related to injuries. At the least, the decision sets new standards for Wisconsin.

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.

The law does not spell out which sports qualify and the District 4 Court of Appeals ruled last year cheerleading doesn't qualify because there's no contact between opposing teams. Many observers warned that families of cheerleaders would be forced to take out big insurance policies if that decision stood.

All seven members of the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to overturn that decision. In the majority opinion, Justice Annette Ziegler said cheerleading is a sport and involves "a significant amount of physical contact between the cheerleaders that at times results in a forceful interaction between the participants."

Ziegler cited stunts in which cheerleaders are tossed in the air as an example of the contact involved.

Because of the increasingly difficult stunts, injuries among high school cheerleaders are a problem. Cheerleading accounted for two-thirds of catastrophic sports injuries among high school girls in the past 25 years, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.

The center said 67 out of 103 fatal, disabling or serious injuries between 1982 and 2007 involving high school females occurred in cheerleading. Its report found more than 95,000 female students and 2,100 male students take part in high school cheerleading every year.

The court ruled in a lawsuit brought by Brittany Noffke, who was a varsity basketball cheerleader at Holmen High School in western Wisconsin. Practicing a stunt for the first time before a basketball game in 2004, Noffke fell backwards off the shoulders of another cheerleader and injured her head.

She filed a lawsuit against a 16-year-old male teammate who was supposed to be her spotter but failed to catch her. She also sued the district and its insurer, alleging the coach was negligent for failing to supervise the stunt and not making sure they used mats.

Ziegler rejected Noffke's argument the Legislature intended to limit the definition of contact sports to more aggressive ones such as football and hockey. She wrote that lawmakers meant to limit liability for "any recreational activity that includes physical contact between persons in a sport involving amateur teams."

The decision means cheerleaders can only be sued for acting recklessly in causing injuries but the court said Noffke's teammate's actions only reflected a lack of skill or a mistake.

Ziegler said the district cannot be sued for the coach's behavior under a Wisconsin law that shields government agencies from lawsuits for the actions of employees. The coach had no duty to make sure a spotter was in place or to provide mats and the stunt was not a "known and compelling danger," the court said.