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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Paralyzed Cornell Gymnast Loses Retrial Bid

(CN) - The "vitriolic behavior" of a lawyer for Cornell University does not warrant retrial after a jury cleared it on the paralysis of a student gymnast, a federal judge ruled.

While attempting a standing back-flip on a TumblTrak trampoline at Cornell University's Teagle Hall Gymnasium on Oct. 12, 2006, senior gymnast Randall Duchesneau, then 21, permanently injured his spine, rendering him a quadriplegic, wheelchair-bound for life.

Duchesneau waged a multimillion dollar negligence suit against Cornell, the Cornell Gymnastics Club and TumblTrak in October 2008. The complaint, filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, claimed that Cornell failed to warn Duchesneau of hidden dangers with the apparatus, and that it failed to provide supervision, screening and spotting during gymnastics practices.

But in November 2012, a federal jury ruled that the university was not legally responsible for the accident, and Duchesneau was denied compensatory damages.

After vigorously discussing a "waiver and assumption of risk agreement" Duchesneau signed in March 2006, the court deemed the signed waiver portion void as against public policy, allowing the jury to see only the document's risk portion.

Duchesneau moved for a new trial, claiming that Cornell's counsel used a multi-day "strategy" to influence the jury with the agreement's "inadmissible and highly prejudicial" waiver portion.

Although U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II admitted that the litigation "has been colored by the unnecessarily vitriolic behavior of counsel," he refused to schedule a new trial on Feb. 20.

"Though this court, as it did on record during trial, admonishes some of the conduct of defense counsel, it is nevertheless clear that a new trial is not warranted," Jones wrote. "This court disapproved of - and still disproves [sic] of - defense counsel's conduct relative to the inquiry made to the court in front of the jury: 'this is not the actual document, but was something that you asked counsel to piece together.' Yet, due to the jury's finding that defendant Cornell University was not negligent, any error in this case was harmless. Furthermore, this court cannot hold that defense counsel's conduct made it '"reasonably probable" that the verdict was influenced by prejudicial statements.'" (Emphasis in original).

Jones also tossed aside Duchesneau's claim that defense counsel "repeatedly" engaged in a "pattern of misconduct" throughout the 18-day trial.

"Though these comments could not be categorized as 'benign,' as defense counsel suggests, they were not so egregious or pervasive as to be considered a pattern of misconduct," Jones wrote.

The court held that no new trial is warranted.

"Plaintiff speculates that the jury, in its unequivocal finding of 'no negligence' on the part of Cornell, somehow considered the concept of 'waiver,'" Jones wrote. "Such speculation is unsupported by the record and plaintiff simply does not meet its burden of proof that would require a new trial.'"

The judge later added that "the only instance that this court can fathom that the actions of either counsel affected the jury in any tangible way, was when, during the lunch break on one of the trial days, the courtroom deputy alerted this court that the jury could overhear counsel for both sides engaged in a shouting match in the courtroom. That alone should speak volumes about the need for civility in the courtroom."

Duchesneau returned to Cornell and graduated in 2009, three years later than his planned graduation date. He is currently attending graduate school at Yale University, according to the Cornell Sun.

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