In 1997, Nicole Ziegelmeyer, a two-time Olympic medal winner, was preparing for the Nagano Winter Games at a skating facility operated by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in Lake Placid, New York. During the course of a practice session, Ms. Ziegelmeyer fell and hit the fiberglass boards surrounding the rink in such a manner that she incurred severe spinal injuries.
In a lawsuit commenced in the Greene County Supreme Court, Ms. Ziegelmeyer claimed that the United State Olympic Committee and other parties were negligent for failing to properly install protective pads over the fiberglass boards. The Supreme Court granted the USOC's motion to dismiss the skater's case, finding that Ms. Ziegelmeyer had assumed the risk of her injury. On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department, affirmed and reiterated the standards applicable to all athletes:
An athlete who voluntarily participates in a sport "consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation"...The "duty under such circumstances is a duty to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty"..."[I]t is not necessary that the injured plaintiff foresee the exact manner in which...her injury occurred"...Moreover, "a higher degree of awareness will be imputed to a professional than to one with less than professional experience in the particular sport"....In a dissent, the Honorable Anthony V. Cardona, expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome, citing to various breaches of safety standards promulgated by the International Skating Union and "Special Regulations for Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating." Since the protective padding required by these regulations were not properly attached or installed, the dissent concluded there were "issues of fact" as to whether the USOC met is duty of making the indoor rink "as safe as it appeared to be" and whether the improper installation of the protective padding created a "dangerous condition 'over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport'". In other words, the skater's claim should have been determined by a judge or jury, after trial. We agree.
While Ms. Ziegelmeyer's attorney has indicated an intention to appeal to the state's highest court, we do not hold out much hope for a favorable outcome; particularly, in light of the Court's recent decision in the Metropolitan Opera case. (A case we examined on April 17, 2006.) As you will recall, the Court of Appeals relieved the opera house of negligence liability--despite the violation of internal operating standards--since no cognizable duty of care had been breached. We fear a similar fate may befall Ms. Ziegelmeyer's claim.
Oh, the agony of defeat ....
For a copy of the Appellate Division's decision in Ziegelmeyer v. United States Olympic Committee, please click on the following link:
For our analysis of the Metropolitan Opera case, please click on the following link:
[Note: Ms. Ziegelmeyer and her husband are now operating a painting contracting business outside of St. Louis, Missouri.]