Pennsylvania Court Holds University Did Not Owe Duty to Prevent Cheerleader’s Injury During Camp Supervised by Cheerleading Academy Instructors
In a case before the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, the court addressed the duty of care owed by a university for injuries suffered by an incoming freshman cheerleader during camp practice. In a negligence lawsuit, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty of care and breached that duty. Here, the court focused on factors used to assess a duty of care, including the relationship of the parties, and the foreseeability of the harm incurred.
Shaye-Ashley Kennedy appealed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Robert Morris University (RMU) and Universal Cheerleading Association (UCA). As an incoming freshman at RMU, Ms. Kennedy attended a pre-camp for the University’s cheerleading squad. The camp was run by Coach Cynthia Hadfield and conducted by UCA.
While at the UCA camp, Ms. Kennedy and three cheerleaders were practicing a rewind stunt. Ms. Kennedy would be propelled upward, perform a tuck in the air, and then the bases would catch her. On her second attempt, Ms. Kennedy landed on top of her bases, but while they caught her, she hit her head on the floor. Ms. Kennedy sustained a concussion, a cervical strain and sprain, and injuries to her eyes, jaw, and neck.
Ms. Kennedy brought a negligence claim against RMU and UCA, although service was not effected upon UCA. She did not proceed against UCA. Ms. Kennedy alleged that through Ms. Hadfield, RMU was negligent in several areas. Ms. Hadfield knew or should have known the danger of the new trick for individuals with little team experience, particularly for Ms. Kennedy as the “flyer.” She claimed that there should have been a spotter and that other members in the group made no attempt to catch or cushion her fall.
RMU eventually moved for summary judgment on the ground that there was no dispute that UCA evaluated the participants’ qualifications and determined the stunts, exclusively teaching and supervising the stunts. RMU alleged it did not have a duty to prevent harm to Ms. Kennedy at a camp supervised and controlled by instructors employed by UCA.
UCA also moved for summary judgment on the ground that it took responsibility for minimizing the inherent risks of performing cheerleading stunts. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of UCA and RMU. Ms. Kennedy appealed.
The appellate court framed the issue as whether the university owed a duty to protect Ms. Kennedy from harm while she and her group were supervised and controlled by UCA instructors. Regarding the duty of care owed by RMU to Ms. Kennedy, the court listed the following factors: the relationship of the parties, the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the consequences of finding a duty exists, the nature of the risk, and the foreseeability of the harm incurred.
Ms. Kennedy argued there was a special relationship between herself and RMU, based on her participation in the University’s cheerleading program. She contended that while she was injured at a camp arranged by a coach, if she had been on RMU premises, there would have been a clear imposition of a duty.
The appellate court distinguished a case in which liability was based on the duty to foresee that a medical emergency could arise. Here, the court found that UCA instructors supervised Ms. Kennedy and her stunt group. RMU did not owe a duty to prevent an injury to Ms. Kennedy. There was no allegation that the coach or RMU negligently entrusted its cheerleaders to UCA. The facts showed UCA operated and directed the camp instruction.
The court also rejected Ms. Kennedy’s claim that RMU had a non-delegable duty to UCA. The court stated that this situation is unlike an employment situation, and it should not be treated like one. Since RMU engaged UCA as an independent contractor, there would be no vicarious liability for UCA’s negligence if Ms. Kennedy asserted UCA were negligent.
The court affirmed the summary judgment in favor of RMU.
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