A female rugby player who was left paralysed for life by a horror tackle has won her High Court fight for up to £10million in compensation after suing her ‘aggressive’ opponent who had threatened to ‘break her’ in an ‘act of revenge’.
Dani Czernuszka, 34, broke her spine after being tackled by ‘angry’ opponent Natasha King during a ruck in a league match between her team Reading Sirens and Bracknell Ladies in October 2017.
Mrs Czernuszka claimed Ms King – who the court heard had an ‘intimidating’ reputation – had said ‘that f***ing number seven, I’m going to break her’ before poleaxing her by ‘belly flopping’ on her during a rolling scrum.
The victim sued her rival for damages in the High Court last month and today Mr Justice Martin Spencer ruled in her favour, blaming Ms King for her devastating injuries.
He added that in executing the tackle, Ms King had been ‘intent only on exacting revenge’ because she was angry at how the game had played out. ‘This was a reckless and dangerous act and fell below an acceptable standard of fair play,’ he said.
Mrs Czernuszka, who was described as ‘slightly built’, claimed she began to get nervous as the game went on as her ‘much heavier’ opponent was playing with ‘aggressive physicality’ and was bent on ‘retribution’.
Dani Czernuszka, pictured outside London’s High Court, who has been left paralysed for life
This image shows the moment Natasha King tackled Mrs Czernuszka during the rugby match
The decision means Mrs Czernuszka is entitled to a huge compensation payout, which will be assessed at a later date, if not agreed outside of court.
During the trial, her lawyers estimated the value of her claim at about £10million.
Paralysed female rugby player insists she still loves the game despite horrific injuries
Dani Czernuszka now plays para ice hockey for Team GB
The ladies rugby player who today won her £10million High Court compensation fight after being paralysed by an ‘angry’ opponent has said she still loves the game despite what happened to her.
Dani Czernuszka, who now plays para ice hockey for Team GB said: ‘Sport has always given me great pleasure in life, and I don’t blame the game of rugby for what happened that day.
‘Ultimately, I feel I was let down by improper and poor behaviour from the opposing player, coaching staff and the referee.’
The verdict in her favour, a first for the ladies’ game, sets a new precedent for sporting injury claims in general.
Mrs Czernuszka, added: ‘I am grateful for today’s ruling and to finally put to bed all of the untruths and fabrications surrounding what happened during the game that day.
‘Learning to live with my life-changing injuries has been difficult and something I could not have done without the support of my family and close friends.
‘I hope I can use my injury and the outcome of today’s trial to raise awareness of the dangerous lines that shouldn’t be crossed when playing sport – no matter the level.’
Her solicitor Damian Horan from Aspire Law said in a statement after the ruling: ‘Rugby is a sport to be enjoyed by players and spectators from grassroots level right through to the professional game. However, this case is a timely reminder that a player’s actions on the pitch never stay on the pitch and can have catastrophic consequences.
‘The outcome sets a legal precedent for future sporting injury claims involving spinal cord injuries and we hope that Mrs Czernuska’s case goes a long way to raise awareness of the dangers involved with foul play on the sporting field.’
Lawyers for Mrs Czernuszka said that the RFU will pick up the damages bill in the case, as they insure all players, whatever their level, through a mandatory scheme.
The judge said: ‘I do find… that the “tackle” was executed with reckless disregard for the claimant’s safety in a manner which was liable to cause injury and that the defendant was so angry by this time that she closed her eyes to the risk to which she was subjecting the claimant, a risk of injury which was clear and obvious.’
Opening the trial last month, Robert Weir KC, for Mrs Czernuszka, said a ‘beef’ had developed between the two women during the game, partly caused by an earlier clash in which Ms King tried to tackle the smaller woman but ‘came off worse’.
Mrs Czernuszka, who is 5ft 3in tall, was in a ‘crouched position’ waiting to receive the ball from her side when the other woman tackled her, he said.
Ms King took hold of her thigh and ‘exerted her full weight downwards on to the head and back of the claimant in the manner of a “belly flop” such that her full weight pressed down heavily on the claimant’s spine’.
Witnesses to the tackle described it variously as like a ‘belly-flop’ or ‘like she was frog splatting on her,’ the barrister told the judge.
He described Mrs Czernuszka’s position as ‘extremely vulnerable’ and noted a size disparity between the two players, telling the court: ‘The claimant is slight, Ms King is not.’
‘The claimant was thereby pinned in a bent-over position by the actions of the first defendant,’ he said.
‘She sustained an immediate severe spinal fracture and spinal cord injury as a direct result of this tackle.’
Mrs Czernuszka, who now plays para ice hockey for Team GB, was left with no movement in her legs and is dependant on a wheelchair.
She was not discharged from hospital until April 2018 – six months after the injury – and now faces a lifetime of ‘profound’ disability.
Mr Weir accepted that Ms King – who was playing fly half – had not set out to injure his client, but claimed she was reckless and ‘threw her weight around’ on the pitch.
‘This was a deliberate act of retaliation, designed to smash the claimant, although without the intention to injure,’ he claimed.
Ms King, who was not penalised by the match referee for the clash, denied that the tackle was a bad one, insisting that it was a ‘proper and legitimate’ tackle.
And she denied showing a ‘reckless disregard’ for her opponent’s safety, telling the judge from the witness box: ‘I don’t play rugby for revenge.’
In her written defence to the claim, her barrister Geoffrey Brown said that, by playing in the match, Mrs Czernuszka ‘impliedly consented to the risk of injury’.
‘It was a rugby injury, arising through the risks inherent in playing the game, not through any fault on the part of Ms King,’ he said.
But allowing Mrs Czernuszka’s claim, the judge disagreed, saying: ‘There was no error of judgment in the tackle, I find that the defendant did exactly what she set out to do.
‘At that moment, she was not attempting to play within the laws of the game, but to exact retribution on the claimant.’
Afterwards, ‘despite the claimant lying prostrate and obviously injured, the defendant walked way towards her own goal line, apparently unconcerned for the claimant and what she had done.
‘Nothing could have been further from the spirit of the game.’
He added: ‘Although this was a league match, the nature of the league being developmental meant that the players were still learning the game and it should have been played in that spirit.
‘The players had a duty to be mindful of each other and to play with the understanding that enjoyment and learning were the main objectives, not winning.
Ms King, pictured, who has been sued for up to £10million
‘However, even in the ‘friendly’ match between the sides on 8 May 2017, Bracknell played the game in an inappropriately aggressive and intimidatory manner, using ‘trash talk’ – swearing a lot, including using abusive language directed at the opposing players – with the Bracknell players taking their lead from the defendant, and this carried through into the game on 8 October 2017.
‘In the match on 8 October 2017…the two sides were playing very different games. The Bracknell players, generally much bigger, relied on their size and their aggression, whereas Sirens relied on their speed.
‘As the game slipped away from Bracknell, the Bracknell players upped their rough tactics.
‘The defendant, despite attempting to dominate the play and use her weight and greater experience – as well as her language – to intimidate the Sirens players, became increasingly frustrated as the game went on and her tactics were seen not to be succeeding.
‘This culminated in the incident… when, after tackling the claimant, the defendant succeeded in winding herself.
Mrs Czernuszka, pictured, who sued her rival personally for damages in the High Court
‘Whilst the defendant was being treated, the Sirens players were celebrating. They may well have been celebrating the fact that they had played so well and the match was effectively won – the score was 14-0 – but it could have been interpreted by the Bracknell players as celebrating the injury to their captain and her ultimate humiliation in sustaining an injury from her own tackle.
‘I have no doubt that the defendant did, as the claimant said, utter the words: ‘That f****** number 7, I’m going to break her.’
‘Thereafter, she was looking for an opportunity to get her revenge on the claimant, the red mist had metaphorically descended over the defendant’s eyes.
‘That opportunity came about three minutes later when, after a ruck, the claimant took up the position of acting scrum-half, and bent down to pick up the ball.
‘The defendant, with eyes only for the claimant, not the ball, and before the ball was in the claimant’s possession, launched herself at the claimant, who was obviously bent over in a highly vulnerable position, unsuspecting and unprepared to protect herself against what was about to occur.
‘The defendant, without any regard for the wellbeing or safety of the claimant and intent only on exacting revenge, executed the ‘tackle’ in a manner which is not recognised in rugby.
‘She drove the claimant backwards and, importantly, downwards using her full weight and strength to crush the claimant in a manoeuvre which was obviously dangerous and liable to cause injury.
‘I therefore find that in this very unusual and exceptional context… the defendant is liable to the claimant for the injuries which the claimant sustained, and there shall be judgment for the claimant,’ the judge concluded.