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NCAA Coverage Awarded to Paralyzed Cheerleader

(CN) - A cheerleader left quadriplegic after a bad fall in a gymnastics class taught by his cheerleading coach qualifies for insurance coverage under the school's policy, the 8th Circuit ruled.

"It may surprise some to learn that cheerleading is, by some measures, the second most dangerous college sport in the country," Judge Rodger Wollman wrote for the three-judge panel. "Cheerleading trails only football in terms of the total dollar value of catastrophic injury insurance claims submitted to the NCAA's insurers. Much of this danger is attributable to the incorporation of acrobatic and gymnastic moves into cheerleading routines. Cheerleaders are charged with, inter alia, being launched high into the air, performing a series of flips and twists, and landing gracefully back into the arms of their teammates, all without pads."

Wesley Patterson, a cheerleader at Prairie View A&M University, fell in his Gymnastics II class while performing a round-off back-handspring back tuck as part of a graded exam.

He injured his spinal cord, and was left an incomplete quadriplegic.

Patterson sought coverage for his injuries under Prairie View's National Collegiate Athletic Association insurance policy with Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co., which covers cheerleaders injured during cheerleading practices.

But the insurance company denied coverage because the gymnastics class was separate from regularly scheduled cheerleading practice, and was open to the entire student body.

The 8th Circuit found for Patterson on Friday, ruling that that the gymnastics class was a "practice session" included under the policy.

"Patterson was tumbling for a grade, yes, but that does not mean he was not also tumbling in preparation for a game," Wollman said. "The fact that Patterson began attending Gymnastics II before he was ever enrolled in the class suggests that his primary purpose in taking the class was to improve his skills as a cheerleader rather than to learn gymnastics; the grade he received for the class was ancillary to this benefit."

The gymnastics class was taught by the cheerleading team's coach, Jim Price, who encouraged cheerleaders to attend even if they did not officially enroll in the class.

"The fact that Gymnastics II is a class does not mean it cannot also be a practice session," the 12-page opinion states.

When Patterson was injured, six of the eight students in the gym were cheerleaders.

"It was Price who decided to turn the class into a cheerleading practice session by teaching tumbling routines used in cheerleading, allowing non-enrolled cheerleaders to attend, and discussing cheerleading business during class. In short, Prairie View authorized Gymnastics II, but Price authorized the cheerleading practice," the ruling states.

The court refused to examine whether Patterson would have used the particular tumbling maneuver that paralyzed him in a future game.

"Were we to impose such a requirement, cheerleaders at after-school practice would have to consider, for insurance purposes, whether they were scheduled to perform each particular drill at a specific game in the near future," Wollman wrote. "This would defeat one of the central purposes of insurance, which is to provide the policyholder peace of mind."

He concluded that "the activities during Gymnastics II were 'directly associated' with a Qualifying Intercollegiate Sport team competition."

Although covered by the NCAA insurance, cheerleading is not an official NCAA sport, as the 2nd Circuit noted in a 2012 Title IX decision.

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