Utah Attorney General Torts Team Obtains No-Cause Verdict in Alleged High School Weightlifting Incident
On April 28, 2023, after a four-day trial and over seven hours of deliberations, a jury returned a no-cause verdict for Murray City School District in a personal injury case brought by a former high school student who alleged that he sustained an inguinal hernia as a result of participating in an introductory weight lifting course in October 2017. The verdict was 7-1. Plaintiff August Thompsen alleged a negligence claim against Murray City School District. He claimed that he was attempting a “one-rep max” deadlift in class and that his teacher, Danielle Humphries, forced him to lift more weight than he was able to safely handle. Mr. Thompsen first reported to the emergency room four days after the alleged incident with a bulge in his groin area and reporting that both his abdominal pain and the bulge appeared one day prior to his hospital visit (or three days after the alleged incident). Medical imaging did not show any obvious inguinal hernia. He followed up with a general surgeon the next day (five days post-alleged incident) who diagnosed a possible inguinal hernia and opted to do a laparoscopic repair. In surgery, the surgeon did not find a significant inguinal hernia, but instead found a “dimple” in the abdominal wall suggesting possibly the start of an inguinal hernia.
Mr. Thompsen had no witnesses in discovery or at trial to corroborate his story. Murray City School District did not have any report of the alleged incident until almost a week after the subject class and was unable to locate any witnesses to corroborate Mr. Thompsen’s version of events.
At trial, Mr. Thompsen’s attorneys opted to call Ms. Humphries as the first witness, who testified that she had no memory of the class when the alleged incident occurred and that she had no reason to force Mr. Thompsen to lift any amount of weight for his “one rep max.” The defense focused on evidence that corroborated her version of the story. This included that her training, course curriculum, and the Utah Core Standards for the weightlifting class. None required Mr. Thompsen to lift any amount of weight and, like the class, the focus was on proper form and technique as well as safety. Additionally, the syllabus for the course made it clear to parents and students that all injuries needed to be immediately reported to the teacher. Ms. Humphries testified as to how the course had progressed for almost eight weeks from the start of school to the day of the alleged incident and explained how each class was structured and that the focus of the course was on proper and safe technique. Part of the defense’s presentation involved her demonstrating for the jury the proper and safe technique for a deadlift.
Mr. Thompsen’s attorneys then called the treating surgeon (Dr. Roderick McKinlay) who testified as to his treatment and offered testimony as to the general causes of inguinal hernias. The defense had Dr. McKinlay confirm his understanding as to the events leading up to Mr. Thompsen seeking medical treatment, namely that he was experiencing constipation and straining to go to the bathroom just prior to the groin bulge appearing one day before presenting to the emergency room.
Mr. Thompsen’s liability expert, Professor Robert Sands, testified that a “one rep max” for the deadlift was not safe or even appropriate for a weightlifter like Mr. Thompsen. He relied on a handful of academic articles (including one from a weightlifting organization in Australia) to support his testimony. He opined that Ms. Humphries did not run the class properly. At one point he told the jury that the teachers at Murray City High School “had puss for brains”.
Mr. Thompsen then presented his retained medical expert, Dr. Steven Mintz, who opined that the weightlifting class had caused the inguinal hernia. In his testimony, he related to the jury a chain of events that contradicted what was documented in the medical records and what Mr. Thompsen had testified in deposition in October 2019. Defense was effective in discrediting Dr. Mintz by pointing out this contradiction and evoked a strong emotional reaction from Dr. Mintz.
Finally, attorneys called Mr. Thompsen as the last witness in his case-in-chief. Mr. Thompsen related that he developed a bulge in his groin immediately after the weightlifting class and, despite course requirements that all injuries be immediately reported, opted not to report it to his teacher because he was “in a hurry”. He testified that he continued attending school, including another weightlifting class, and still did not report the injury. He testified as to his pain and that he needed additional treatment after complications from the initial surgery. He later required a triple neurectomy. He testified that he was unable to play competitive tennis and needed to take significant time off from school for his treatment. He admitted that he had since made a full recovery and was in college where he was pursuing a degree in psychology. On cross examination, the defense was effective in discrediting Mr. Thompsen’s testimony as to what led him to seek medical treatment by demonstrating that his trial testimony contradicted both his deposition testimony in 2019 and the chain of events documented in the medical records. Mr. Thompsen’s attorneys were unable to effectively rehabilitate him after cross examination.
The defense started its case in chief on the afternoon of the second day of trial. The defense called Murray High School Physical Education Department Chair Katie Jepson who testified as to the curriculum for the course, the training requirements to become a physical education teacher, how Ms. Humphries taught the course, and vouched for Ms. Humphries. The defense followed up her presentation with its liability expert, Professor Todd Seidler of the University of New Mexico who opined that Ms. Humphries properly taught and supervised the course. The defense then presented its retained medical expert, Dr. Kyle Dunning, a general surgeon in Ogden who was a surgeon in the U.S. Army and had performed thousands of inguinal hernia repairs. Dr. Dunning testified that inguinal hernias are not “injuries” per se, but a medical condition that develops over time and as a result of multiple factors. He testified that a single incident does not generally cause an inguinal hernia. Pointing to the medical records in evidence, he testified that Mr. Thompsen did not relate the alleged weightlifting incident to any of his treaters (and only in passing to a nurse).
The trial concluded with testimony from Dr. Daniel Vargo, a hernia specialist, at the University of Utah who largely corroborated the opinions of Dr. Dunning as to general causation of inguinal hernias. Dr. Vargo performed the triple neurectomy on Mr. Thompsen in July 2018. As a treater, Dr. Vargo could not opine as to the causation of Mr. Thompsen’s hernia, but testified that the causes of inguinal hernias remain unclear and that it is unclear if a single incident causes inguinal hernias.
Mr. Thompsen claimed medical specials of just over $100,000. Mr. Thompsen’s attorneys asked the jury to award between $350,000 and $600,000.
Michael Driggs, Chris Thresher, and Alan Tucker represented Mr. Thompsen at trial. Michael Stahler and Adam Wentz represented Murray City School District and were assisted by Paralegal Katie Lawyer as well as Ruby Yannie, Samantha Bernards, and Shaine Taylor. The Utah Division of Risk Management insures Murray City School District, as well as many public-school districts in the state.