A San Diego jury recently awarded $46 million to a man who suffered a spinal cord injury during a Brazilian jiu-jitsu lesson, leaving him a quadriplegic. Although martial arts are generally considered “assumed-risk” activities, expert testimony helped the jury distinguish between foreseeable, reasonable risks and what happened to the plaintiff.
The Allegations and the Parties
The injury occurred in 2018, when the plaintiff was 23 years old, nearing the end of his college studies, and preparing for a career as a professional surf instructor. The plaintiff was also a beginner in the study of jiu-jitsu.
During the 2018 lesson, the plaintiff was paired with an instructor at the club who held the rank of second-degree black belt and had won several International Championship titles. The plaintiff was in the “turtle position” – on all fours, face-down on the mat.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu teaches that if an opponent is in this position, the goal is to put that person on their side without causing further injury – a maneuver known as “taking the back. “ Instead, during the 2018 lesson, the instructor launched his body weight onto the plaintiff’s head and neck in a way that crushed the plaintiff’s cervical vertebrae, leaving him permanently paralyzed.
As a result of his injuries, the plaintiff endured months of medical treatment, including being placed on a ventilator and catheterized. He underwent multiple surgeries, including an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion of C5 corpectomy, titanium cage, and posterior spinal fusion from C4 to C6 – three vertebrae in the neck. The patient also suffered several strokes during this time, which required additional surgery to place a left vertebral artery stent.
The $46 Million Jury Verdict
Throughout the case, which included a four-week trial, the plaintiff received representation from various attorneys. The team included attorneys Rahul Ravipudi, Paul Traina, John Shaller, and Trevor Weitzenberg of Panish | Shea | Boyle | Ravipudi LLP and Shawn D. Morris, Michael Malady, and Christian W. Barton of Morris, Sullivan & Lemkul, LLP.
Attorneys Robert T. Bergsten and Mary M. Campo of Hosp, Gilbert & Bergsten represented the defendants at trial.
In the lawsuit filed on behalf of the plaintiff, attorneys argued that, by failing to adhere to the requisite standard of care, the jiu-jitsu studio and the instructor unreasonably increased the risk inherent in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, thereby causing the plaintiff’s injuries.
“At trial, Mr. Iturralde testified that he knew his obligations were to be safe and minimize risk for his white belt student, Jack Greener, and that he failed to do so by attempting a dangerous move without any control over his student or himself,” said lead trial attorney Rahul Ravipudi.
As a result of the instructor’s and studio’s actions, attorneys explained, the plaintiff’s “life as he knew it was taken away from him” the day of the injury. Instead of completing his college degree, participating in commencement, and starting his anticipated career as a surf instructor in Costa Rica, the plaintiff found himself enduring several grueling months of medical treatment and continued injuries that have come to define his life as a permanently paralyzed individual.
Jury deliberations spanned two days, during which the jury determined that the defendants were 100 percent at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff that included a total award of $36 million for past and future pain and suffering. The verdict also included amounts for loss of earnings and for past and future medical expenses.
Insights and Lessons for Attorneys
A personal injury case with complex, catastrophic injuries – like the injuries here – immediately calls to mind the need for expert witness testimony from medical experts. This case, however, also benefited from the involvement of an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Like many athletic events, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an assumed risk activity. However, the doctrine of assumed risk applies only to reasonably foreseeable risks.
Many martial arts focus on ending conflict by minimizing or avoiding damage to either combatant and preventing injury to students in the training process. In this case, an expert witness on Brazilian jiu-jitsu clarified that “Brazilian jiu-jitsu was designed to empower the weak against the strong” and that student safety was a “top priority” in meeting this goal.
Understanding the standard of care in the instructor-student relationship helped the jury conclude that the plaintiff did not contribute to his own injuries and that the harm he suffered was not a reasonably foreseeable risk of participating in a beginner jiu-jitsu class.
At trial, the plaintiff’s attorneys were able to secure the same admissions from the instructor that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. On the stand, the instructor admitted that he knew the role of the instructor came with an obligation to protect students from harm – an obligation he admitted his own failure to meet.
Not all defendants will be as forthcoming on the stand. Choosing expert witnesses who can break down common stereotypes about assumed-risk activities, however, can help jurors understand exactly which risks are “assumed” and which are not. In cases like these, that distinction can make all the difference.