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Basket Brawl

N.C. student sues after she was injured in a game-stopping 'melee'

A North Carolina student is suing two colleges and an athletic conference, claiming that she was “punched, kicked, and choked unconscious” in a bench-clearing brawl at a college basketball game at a Virginia school.

Turquoise Lane also alleges that officials at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville refused to call emergency help or provide medical care for her after the fight halted the game at Saint Paul’s in 2006.

A Brunswick County circuit judge this month rejected a motion to remove the athletic conference from Lane’s lawsuit. Judge W. Allan Sharrett let Lane’s lawsuit go forward against the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association in Lane v. Saint Paul’s College, et al. (VLW 008-8-218).

Lane was a member of the women’s basketball team at Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. She claims that she suffered physical injuries, memory loss and psychological harm from the brawl that erupted at her team’s game at Saint Paul’s in February 2006.

Lane’s attorney, Greg Habeeb of Roanoke, said that it was not a one-on-one fight. “It was a melee.” Lane’s complaint names as defendants both colleges, the CIAA and five members of the Saint Paul’s team.

The lawsuit claims that the CIAA and the two member schools failed to address prior incidents of crime and violence, “fostering a sense of lawlessness on Saint Paul’s campus.”

The Hampton-based CIAA is the nation’s oldest black athletic conference, according to its Web site. It consists of 10 historically African-American colleges in Virginia and nearby states.

The CIAA reportedly argued that Virginia law only rarely allows third-party liability for the criminal acts of others, and never against a party that is not the owner of the property in question.

Habeeb countered that the case against the CIAA was not based on premises liability, but on a failure to provide a safe setting for an event that it sponsored. The CIAA “took on a duty and they breached it by failing to have adequate security in place….,” argued Habeeb at the demurrer hearing.

Sharrett held that the allegations can go forward. “Assuming all facts as pleaded by Plaintiff are true, the Court finds them legally sufficient to state a cause of action against Defendant CIAA,” he wrote.

Testing the alleged facts is the next order of business for the CIAA’s lawyer, Alan Rashkind of Norfolk and the other defendants. “We are convinced that there is no factual support for those allegations, that the CIAA is not responsible in any way, and that responsibility for the brawl, as is almost always the case, lies with some or all of the brawlers,” Rashkind wrote in an e-mail.

The outcome of the CIAA’s demurrer does not surprise attorney Roger T. Creager of Richmond, a frequent advocate for the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. “I think the judge’s decision is 100 percent sound under existing law,” he said.

“We’ve long had negligent security cases. It looks to me like the allegations of the pleadings come right within that recognized theory of liability,” Creager said.

The demurrer presented a novel fact pattern, Habeeb said. While the lawyers argued analogous cases, “there was nothing dead on-point,” he said. Nevertheless, the allegations suggest parallels to cases where defenses of assumption of risk and “inherent risk” have been advanced.

“As a general rule, certainly, a player who voluntarily is involved in a sporting or athletic activity does face heavy obstacles to recovering for reasonably foreseeable injuries or inherent risks of the activity,” said Mark Lightfoot of Richmond. Lightfoot successfully defended a Virginia baseball club sued by a fan who was hit by a foul ball.

Bruce Wallinger of Harrisonburg helped bring about a 2003 ruling that bars the “inherent risk” doctrine in Virginia. Reviewing the complaint in the Lane case, he suggested that the facts will drive the outcome:

“Whether the applicable law is labeled inherent risk or assumption of risk, it appears from the facts alleged in the complaint that one of the questions to be addressed … is the extent to which a player assumes the risk of violent acts by opposing players and their supporters. The decision is more likely to turn on the facts rather than any fine distinctions between the inherent risk and assumption of risk doctrines.”

The assumption-of-risk defense may fall short if there is evidence that Lane was kicked and choked unconscious, said Creager. “I don’t think there is any way you assume the risk of that,” he said.

For the record, the Saint Paul’s-Livingstone game in Feb. 2006 was forfeited by Saint Paul’s after the technical fouls against both teams left no players to finish the game.

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