The heartbroken family of a student who died after choking in a pancake-eating contest is suing her university. Caitlin Nelson, 20, died in March 2017 after her airway became blocked by a mass of pancake during an eating competition at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University. Witnesses say sorority vice president Caitlin collapsed and started convulsing after eating about five pancakes. Nursing students who were at the event administered immediate first aid and were soon joined by paramedics and police officers. Caitlin was rushed to hospital in critical condition and tragically died two days later.
Caitlin’s family has now launched legal action against Sacred Heart University over the incident. The lawsuit claims that a large quantity of concrete-like pancake paste had to be removed from Caitlin’s airway. It is also stated in the lawsuit that the family wants to improve awareness of the dangers presented by amateur eating challenges and save lives by preventing similar tragedies in the future.
Competitive Eating Dangers
There have been several fatal incidents surrounding competitive eating contests, prompting widespread criticism of the events. A 42-year-old man died in Denver just days after Caitlin Nelson’s death, after choking during a doughnut-eating challenge. In another incident in 2014, a competitive eater died during a hot dog-eating competition. Almost all competitive eating deaths are attributed to choking, due to the high volume of food being consumed with minimal chewing, creating a serious risk of airway blockages occurring. Even competitive eaters admit that it can be a dangerous practice for amateurs who are not used to rapid high-volume eating.
Choking is not the only danger presented by eating competitions though, especially for competitive eaters who test their limits regularly. It can cause vomiting, nausea, and chronic indigestion, as well as stomach perforations and even conditions that stop the body processing food properly.
The question of liability can be complicated when it comes to eating competitions. Organizers will usually have entrants sign a waiver before taking part in a contest. This practice is particularly well-established in professional competitions which have been set up by an experienced organizing body. However, in many amateur contests, waivers are not signed.
Even when a waiver is signed, it may not be enforceable in court. This means that there may still be a liability case, allowing for legal action to be taken. In some cases, it may be ruled that amateur entrants were not fully aware of the risks and did not have the information necessary to make an informed decision. Waivers are also usually not enforceable when they are signed by minors or those under the influence of alcohol, or if the waiver is not written clearly.
In the case of Caitlin Nelson, the family is filing a lawsuit because they believe the proper precautions were not taken to make the university contest safe. Anyone else who has suffered a loss or injury through a similar event may also be able to seek compensation. Contact an experienced premises liability attorney who can take you through your legal options.