Did you, a friend, or a family member suffer a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) injury due to the carelessness or recklessness of your Sensei? Hello. I am Los Angeles sports injury attorney Michael Ehline. I started Judo around six years old, taking Muay Thai, BJJ, and years of boxing lessons and wrestling instruction. I was doing mixed martial arts and street fighting before it started in the mid-1990s. I managed an LA Boxing in Costa Mesa, CA, and several health clubs and my son currently takes Judo.
I am an expert in MMA law, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu/Gracie Jiu-Jitsu negligence claims. I founded Ehline Law Firm in 2005 to help personal injury plaintiffs harmed by other parties. I was also a Marine and have fought in several amateur fights. I have written many articles and presented many podcasts with affiliates and social media influencers on such topics.
Below, I will explain a little bit about waivers and voluntary assumption of the risk in the present legal framework of California laws. I am also going to help you understand why in most cases, you can never succeed in a lawsuit for pain and suffering or even lost past and future earnings against your Sensei if you suffer a mat-related injury. Jiu Jitsu classes have an inherent risk of future pain, even when taught by someone with absolute or apparent authority, such as a teacher at Gracie University.
Typically a case like this will never make it to a trial court unless your teacher fails to meet the standard of care for his belt level, which is very hard to prove unless you hire someone like Rener Gracie as your standard of care expert witness and have facts to back plaintiff’s injury claims. This article explores instructors’ legal liability and coverage to pay damages under an ordinary franchise relationship. Let’s go.
Genesis of BJJ in the USA
To begin with, let’s eliminate some confusion. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is a trademarked name, so other Brazilians started teaching this art which gave rise to the acronym BJJ. They had to re-brand this fighting technique, as it spread across the globe, not to violate any trademarks or copyrights in Brazil or another country. There are subtle differences in how it is taught. But that is the fundamental difference as it exists in our nation. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art and self-defense system originating from Brazil. BJJ gained popularity in the United States because of the UFC. BJJ typically has little to no transitions from standing to the mats.
Many traditional Judokas dislike the more relaxed discipline of BJJ when compared to Japanese Judo or Jujutsu.
Let’s see why. Two Brazilians, Carlos, and Helio Gracie, originally developed BJJ, which incorporates techniques from Japanese Kodokan Judo, focusing on ground fighting and utilizing submission holds, joint locks, and chokeholds. Traditional Judo focuses on standing, locking up, and throwing your opponent to the ground. Thicker mats are used, as one standard throw could quickly render your “uke” unconscious. Judo has a serious and thoughtful desire always to protect your uke or sparring partner. BJJ has incorporated some traditions, but my experience is that Japanese discipline and “protecting your uke above all else standards” are more relaxed in BJJ. I can’t speak for all BJJ instructors, but the academy I attended did not adhere to the old-school judo playbook in this regard.
Royce Gracie Changes the Fight Game
Wearing a light Gi, Royce Gracie could devastate far larger opponents, including pro boxers and Olympic wrestlers in the Octagon, establishing BJJ as a NEW martial art. Judokas beg to differ, however, proclaiming BJJ as an acronym for Basically Just Judo with less satisfying throws and a thinner Gi, less tear-resistant Gi needed for grabbing and throwing.
There are other differences as well. At my BJJ academy, we called the Dojo an academy, and our Sensei was not called “Sensei.” We usually called him sir, teacher, or by his first name. In my case, Rey Diogo was my teacher, so we called him “Rey.” We dispensed with Japanese terms like Kuzushi and Uki as well.
BJJ is often a pathway into UFC style Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. Traditional Judokas have competed in MMA, but BJJ is why the UFC exists for all intents and purposes.
In the MMA martial arts community, a more Western terminology exists. For example, a technical knockout (TKO) refers to a situation where a participant cannot continue the match safely.
There are several types of TKOs:
- Corner stoppage: When one participant is being relentlessly battered by their opponent, risking injury, another individual (such as the combatant’s corner) may intervene to end the match.
- Doctor’s stoppage: If a participant is injured and unable to continue the match safely, the doctor may step in and stop the fight.
- Stoppage due to strikes: If a combatant is repeatedly struck and unable to defend themselves coherently, the referee may end the match and award a TKO to the other participant.
Like any sport or martial art, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu carries a risk of injury. Common injuries include bruises, scratches, sprains, torn ligaments, and broken lips, which are expected in a contact sport. However, more severe injuries such as broken bones, dislocations, and lacerations may also occur, requiring immediate medical attention.
If injured during training, it is important to stop and seek help from your instructor or the match overseer if an incident arises. To be clear, in most cases, the teacher is not at fault for injuries to a man, woman, or child so long they met their obligations to teach correctly.
Are BJJ Liability Waivers Effective to Prevent Being Sued?
Maybe. Liability waivers in martial arts, including Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), serve as legal agreements between participants and the gym or school. While liability waivers can effectively limit a gym’s liability and deter lawsuits, their enforceability can vary depending on the jurisdiction and specific circumstances of the case.
In general, liability waivers are designed to make participants aware of the potential risks involved in martial arts training and require them to assume those risks. By signing the waiver, participants acknowledge their understanding of the inherent dangers and agree not to hold the gym or school legally responsible for any injuries that may occur during training.
However, there are certain limitations to the effectiveness of liability waivers. They may not protect against claims of gross negligence or intentional harm, as courts often view such waivers as unenforceable in those situations. Additionally, waivers may be subject to scrutiny if they are found to be unconscionable or if there was coercion or misrepresentation involved in obtaining the participant’s consent.
Does Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Carry an Inherent Risk of Injury?
Yes. A recent study by a BJJ sports journalist found the number of injured athletes high among them, 2 out of 3. 2 athletes reported a minimum injury within three years. In addition, there were three injuries requiring at least two days off. I can attest that when I took BJJ, I was always bruised up and sore, especially my arms, from being pinched during grappling and Gi grabs.
Examples of Injuries Associated With BJJ Classes
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, like any contact sport, carries the risk of injuries.
While the severity and frequency of injuries may vary, some common injuries associated with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu include:
- Joint Sprains: The twisting and grappling movements in BJJ can put stress on the joints, leading to sprains in areas such as the wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, and ankles.
- Muscle Strains: Quick movements and intense grappling can result in muscle strains, particularly in the back, neck, and legs.
- Contusions and Bruises: Bumps and collisions during training or competitions can cause contusions and bruises on various parts of the body.
- Cuts and Abrasions: The presence of rough mats and training equipment can sometimes lead to cuts and abrasions on the skin.
- Dislocations: Applying joint locks and submissions can occasionally result in joint dislocations, such as shoulder or elbow dislocations.
- Neck and Spinal Injuries: Due to the focus on ground fighting and submission holds, there is a risk of neck and spinal injuries, including strains, herniated discs, and spinal misalignments.
- Facial Injuries: Accidental strikes or impacts during training can cause facial injuries, including black eyes, broken noses, or dental injuries.
- Rib and Chest Injuries: The pressure exerted during grappling and the weight of opponents can lead to rib fractures or bruising in the chest area.
With proper training techniques, supervision, and adherence to safety guidelines, white belts, and higher-ups can significantly reduce the risk of being injured. Also, students can maintain additional protection during training sessions by wearing proper protective gear, including a mouthpiece and joint support.
At the end of the day, being injured is generally a risk inherent to this awesome sport. Non-hackers need not apply.
Summary Judgment is Where Cases Die
The issue here is that many of these cases are thrown out on summary judgment by courts unless they can adequately argue ostensible agency. But sometimes, there is tangible evidence to get the case to a jury. For starters, a neighbor or friend sometimes will video-tape the match and throw it up on social media. Even then, a jury can still say no way, Jose, regardless of your past medical expenses, future or past pain. Even if you suffered multiple strokes from being injured, the courts would focus on whether there was a duty before you could argue damages. Let’s take a look at the fundamental principles of tort law to understand why.
How Does Voluntary Assumption of the Risk Work in a BJJ Injury Case?
In most cases, a sports participant cannot seriously argue they were denied notice and opportunity to explore the inherent risks of a sport. Definitely, a brown belt or second-degree black belt can’t make that argument. Even a white belt student will have a hard time proving they didn’t know they could suffer a sprain, broken arm, or broken neck. Hence, the defense counsel will argue the legal doctrine known as the voluntary assumption of the risk. This may come into play in a BJJ injury case. It is based on the principle that individuals who voluntarily engage in certain activities, such as martial arts training, assume the inherent risks associated with those activities.
When people participate in BJJ, they are generally aware of the potential risks involved, including the possibility of injury. By voluntarily participating in the sport, they are considered to have assumed the risks associated with BJJ.
In the context of a BJJ injury case, the defense may argue that the injured party voluntarily assumed the risk of injury by participating in the sport. They may claim that the injured party was aware of the potential dangers and willingly accepted them. If successful, this defense can limit or even eliminate the liability of the gym or instructor.
Why Did San Diego Jury Award $46 Mil to Paralyzed Jiu-Jitsu Student?
Jack Greener BJJ white belt, Jack Greener was pronounced quadriplegic after suffering spinal damage while practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The lawyer alleged that Greener was an amateur 23-year-old in DelMar Jiu-Jitsu Club back on November 29, 2018. Although Greener knew judo, he was not at the level he needed to be for his sparring session with BJJ instructor Iturralde.
During a practice session with BJJ instructor Francisco Iturralde, Mr. Greener found himself in the turtle position, a stance where one is crouched on all fours with their face down on the mat. Typically, when facing an opponent in the turtle position, the objective is to transition to a safer position called “taking the back.” However, in this instance, Iturralde took a different approach. While positioned on top of Mr. Greener, Iturralde crouched on the balls of his feet, effectively restraining Mr. Greener to the mat. He further immobilized Mr. Greener’s left arm before forcefully propelling himself up and over his opponent with his entire bodyweight on Mr. Greener’s neck.
Iturralde testified he had a duty not to conduct a dangerous move for this particular student. In fact, a “dangerous move without any control over his student or himself occurred,” paralyzing Greener for life. Understanding the standard of care in the instructor-student relationship helped the California 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 secured the same admissions from the instructor that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. On the stand, the instructor admitted that he knew his conduct fell below the standard of care, according to news reports in the San Diego Del Mar area. In other words, the outcome may have been different if Greener, who was also a wrestling celebrity at his high school, was sparring with a purple belt, according to the original complaint for damages. To no avail, defense counsel continued to argue that Greener knew enough to know he could get hurt, despite the fact the teacher basically admitted he blew it. Their goal was to reduce or prevent any money to Jack Greener for his injuries and losses.
Experts Helped Prove The Case?
Yes. Additional expert testimony evidence helped the jury distinguish between the foreseeable, reasonable risks inherent in “assumed-risk” activities like martial arts and what happened to the plaintiff. Part of due process in these cases is allowing the experts to battle it out. Typically, the defense expert will deny responsibility, and the plaintiff’s expert will argue the studio’s teaching fell below the standard of care. The teacher failed to fulfill this duty by attempting a dangerous move without proper control over himself or his student, as lead trial attorney Rahul Ravipudi stated. The plaintiff’s life drastically changed due to the actions of the instructor and the studio. Instead of pursuing his college degree, participating in commencement, and (he was weeks away from starting his anticipated career as a professional surf instructor in Costa Rica), he endured months of arduous medical treatment and continues to suffer from ongoing injuries that have permanently paralyzed him and destroying any chance at a career or graduating college or pursuing higher education.
After two days of jury deliberation, it was determined that the defendants were fully responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries, with the negligent defendants failing to dispute the underlying claims. The jury awarded the plaintiff a total of $36 million for past and future pain and suffering, including compensation for lost earnings and past/future medical expenses.
Jury Verdict Award Broken Down
After being held liable, the trial court ordered the defendant to pay awarded compensation consisting of several components. Greener received $637,959 for the loss of past and future earnings, $1,337,153.23 to cover past medical expenses, and a significant sum of $8,500,000 to address his future medical expenses. Furthermore, he was awarded $11,000,000 for the pain and suffering he endured in the past and a substantial amount of $25,000,000 to compensate for the pain and suffering he is expected to experience in the future. In any event, Greener and his family would have preferred no money and a coach who was not dangerous to begin with! Of course, the academy can file an appeal, likely based on an excessive verdict, waiver, or assumption of risk that had been raised originally. Typically, the parties will negotiate a reduced amount to prevent more costly litigation.
Exceptions To Primary Assumption of the Risk Doctrine in BJJ?
The defense of voluntary assumption of the risk is not absolute, and sometimes a jury will reject this defense. There are certain limitations and exceptions to this doctrine. Courts will consider factors such as the nature and extent of the risks involved, the participant’s level of experience and skill, the adequacy of safety measures taken by the gym or instructor, and whether there was any gross negligence or intentional misconduct on the defendant’s part.
Furthermore, the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk may be subject to interpretation and application by the courts, which can vary depending on the specific jurisdiction and the case circumstances.
Sources of Payment Can Deal a Blow To Your Case?
The hardest part is the recovery of damages. Most BJJ schools are run by a single teacher, who typically has little to zero assets. Their insurance policy may deny coverage as well, leaving you with no way to collect as the instructor files for bankruptcy and divorce. Assuming you are dealing with a large franchise like Gracie, even then, unless the franchise was involved in actual operations, you likely will not recover from them because “…very similar to [an] ordinary franchise relationship“; an “ordinary franchise relationship does create franchisor liability for franchisee’s acts unless the franchisor is involved in the specific acts that caused the plaintiff’s injury.” (See e.g., Pereda v. Atos Jiu Jitsu LLC.)
Ramon Pereda contended that renowned Brazilian martial arts champion Andre Galvao established Atos Jiu Jitsu. Pereda claimed Galveo maintained significant control over the “League,” a studio located in Long Beach, CA. Pereda claimed that this level of control was enough to make Atos Jiu-Jitsu legally responsible for the injuries he sustained.
Hence, arguing ostensible authority or agency at his hearing could not save the case unless his lawyer also showed a “…reasonable belief that a franchisor is controlling the portion of the franchisee’s operation that caused the plaintiff’s alleged injury.” ( J.L. v. Children’s Institute, Inc. (2009) 177 Cal.App.4th 388, 406, 99 Cal.Rptr.3d 5.) So it appears unless you had a reasonable belief the franchisor was supervising your classes, it’s not going anywhere, and you are stuck seeking insurance money from the teacher or his corporation alone.
Deep pockets are always the issue in catastrophic cases. If there is insurance coverage, a lawyer will probably help you. If not, you are probably alone, meaning the case won’t get before a jury. The only way for a new white belt to minimize risk is to find out in advance if there is enough coverage, just in case.
Insights and Lessons for Attorneys
In personal injury cases involving complex and severe injuries like this one, expert witness testimony from medical professionals is crucial. However, this case also benefitted from the involvement of an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu, like many other athletic activities, carries assumed risks. However, the doctrine of assumed risk only applies to risks that are reasonably foreseeable.
Many martial arts prioritize minimizing harm and preventing injuries to students during training. In this case, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert witness clarified that the art was designed to empower the weaker individual against the more robustly and emphasized student safety’s top priority.
Understanding the standard of care within the instructor-student relationship helped the jury conclude that the plaintiff did not contribute to his injuries. His harm was deemed an unforeseeable risk of participating in a beginner jiu-jitsu class.
During the trial, the plaintiff’s attorneys successfully obtained admissions from the instructor that directly caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The instructor acknowledged his obligation to protect students from harm but admitted his own failure in meeting this obligation.
It is important to note that not all defendants will be as forthcoming on the stand. However, selecting expert witnesses who can challenge common assumptions about assumed-risk activities can help jurors understand which risks are indeed “assumed” and which are not. This distinction can significantly impact cases like these.
Suppose you have been injured during BJJ training and are facing the defense of voluntary assumption of the risk. In that case, consulting with an experienced personal injury attorney specializing in martial arts or sports-related injuries is essential. They can evaluate the specific details of your case, consider applicable laws and legal precedents in your jurisdiction, and provide you with the necessary guidance and representation to protect your rights and pursue fair compensation for your injuries.
It’s important to note that the specific laws and legal precedents regarding liability waivers can vary between jurisdictions. Therefore, it’s crucial to consult with a qualified attorney knowledgeable about the laws in your jurisdiction to understand the enforceability of liability waivers in your specific case.
In any situation where an injury occurs during training, it is advisable to seek legal assistance from an attorney experienced in premises liability and personal injury. They can evaluate the circumstances of your case, including the terms of the liability waiver, and provide guidance on your options for seeking compensation for your injuries.
Ehline Law Firm, with its expertise in personal injury cases, can be a valuable resource to help people navigate the legal process and pursue the compensation they deserve for any significant medical costs resulting from BJJ training injuries.
What’s the most common injury in Jiu-Jitsu?
The most commonly seen injuries in Brazilian Jiujitsu are joint sprains, especially around the shoulder, elbow, wrists, and knees. Several joint-locking techniques were used in this activity. A joint lock is used to apply pressure to joint surfaces and force opponents to submit or pull off.
What Damages Can I Get Awarded in a BJJ Injury Claim?
In a BJJ injury claim, if you can prove that someone else’s negligence or misconduct caused your injuries, you may be entitled to various types of damages. The specific damages awarded can vary based on the circumstances of the case and the extent of your injuries.
Here are some potential damages that you may be able to seek in a BJJ injury claim:
Future Medical Expenses and Past Medical Expenses
You can seek compensation for your current and future medical expenses for treating your BJJ injuries. This includes costs for hospitalization, surgeries, doctor visits, medications, rehabilitation, and any necessary assistive devices. In case of a severe spine injury, this may include a special van with a wheelchair ramp and in-home nursing care, etc.
Pain and Suffering Damages
Damages for future and past pain and suffering are intended to compensate you for the physical and emotional pain, distress, and discomfort caused by your injuries. These general, intangible damages can be subjective and often vary based on the judge, jury, and severity of your injuries. The key to maximizing the damages award often comes down to their impact on your daily life.
The legal process guarantees your right to be heard, not multiple opportunities to keep taking bites of the same apple. If the defendant is held liable, you are stuck with what the jury gives you in most cases unless the court wants additur or remittitur.
Lost Past and Future Earnings
Suppose your BJJ injuries have caused you to miss work or resulted in a diminished earning capacity. In that case, you may be able to recover compensation for the wages you have lost and any future income you are likely to lose due to your injuries.
Disability and Impairment
Suppose your injuries have resulted in a long-term or permanent disability or impairment. In that case, you may be entitled to damages to compensate for the impact on your quality of life, ability to perform daily activities, and future earning potential.
If the BJJ injury has caused significant emotional trauma, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may be able to seek compensation for emotional distress.
In cases where the defendant’s conduct was particularly reckless or intentional, the court may award punitive damages. These damages are meant to punish the defendant and deter similar behavior in the future. For example, if the teacher allows another student to keep the chokehold on you after the buzzer, his failure to monitor could be why you suffer a crushed trachea, etc. To be clear, if he sees you are out of breath or limp, based on your rubbery extremities, and intentionally allows you to suffer, he should be punished for sending a message to the public. That’s the goal!
It’s essential to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney who can assess the details of your case, evaluate the potential damages, and guide you through the legal process to pursue fair compensation for your BJJ injuries. Ehline Law Firm has highly dedicated lawyers to watch over your case as you recover and heal. We are available 24/7 to assist and receive all new clients who have read this article needing legal assistance after an accident at (213) 596-9642.
Get a Free Consultation From a Jiu Jitsu Injury Lawyer in Los Angeles
Were you or a loved one hospitalized due to the negligence of your BJJ instructor or franchisor? Getting hurt pursuing martial arts is never good. Some losses are inherent, and others are not. Staying physically safe is not always possible in a sport designed to teach you combat. Despite an increased risk of injury, all bets are off when the injury is caused by negligent insurrection or improper sparring.
We can answer any question swiftly and succinctly to inform you before forming an attorney-client relationship with our world-famous law firm in Los Angeles, CA. Call or email our superior, caring, award-winning injury lawyers today. Our number is (213) 596-9642. Get the legal information you need before the statute of limitations runs out in your case, ending your chances of obtaining compensation.