Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co. must provide coverage for a college cheerleader who was paralyzed during a class, even though its policy specifies it provides coverage for practice sessions, an appellate court ruled Friday.
Wesley Patterson joined the cheerleading team at Prairie View, Texas-based Prairie View A&M University in the fall of 2007, according to the ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis in Wesley Patterson v. Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co., a Nebraska Corp.; John Doe, a corporation.
In addition to attending cheerleading practice four days a week, he enrolled in a Gymnastics II class, a one-credit physical education class whose teacher was the team's coach.
On Jan. 23, 2008, while attempting to perform a round-off back-handspring back tuck as part of a graded skills exam in the class, he fell and injured his spinal cord, rendering him an “incomplete” quadriplegic, meaning he was left with some sensory or motor function, according to the ruling.
Mr. Patterson sued Omaha, Neb.-based Mutual in federal court in Omaha seeking a declaration that the “catastrophic injury blanket insurance policy” it provides to member schools of the Indianapolis-based National Collegiate Athletic Association covered his injuries. The court ruled that Mutual was obligated to provide coverage under terms of its policy, and Mutual appealed.
The policy states that it covers student cheerleaders who participate in certain “covered events,” including practice sessions, according to the ruling. Mutual argued it was not obligated to provide coverage because Mr. Patterson had not been injured during a practice session.
Common language interpretation of 'practice'
But a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit unanimously disagreed.
“We interpret terms in insurance policy from the perspective of an ordinary policyholder of average intelligence,” said the ruling.
According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary “practice” can be defined as a “systematic exercise for proficiency” and “session” can be defined as a “meeting or period devoted to auricular activity,” it states.
“Patterson's activities during Gymnastics II fit this definition,” the ruling states. The fact “that Gymnastics II is a class does not mean it cannot also be practice session,” it states, noting also that “(c)ase law includes examples of similar overlaps between academics and interscholastic athletes.”
The ruling also observes that cheerleading “trails only football in terms of the total dollar value of catastrophic insurance claims submitted to the NCAA's insurers.”
In December 2013, an appeals court held that a parent-volunteer coach of a high school cheerleading squad was not liable for the head injury suffered by one of her cheerleaders while trying out a new stunt.