ANNAPOLIS – A weightlifter who had a 530-pound bar smash into his face during a bench press competition cannot sue event organizers for the incident, the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled.
The state’s highest court reported Tuesday that Christopher Cotillo took on the risk of such an injury when he attempted the record-setting bench press, rejecting his contention that the high school-age spotters at the event were improperly trained.
“My injury was a direct result of the spotters being told to do the wrong thing,” Cotillo said Wednesday. “I don’t assume the risk of 530 pounds bouncing off my face when I have three spotters standing around me.”
But Samuel Shapiro, attorney for the American Powerlifting Association, said the spotters saved Cotillo’s life. Though they were not able to stop the bar from hitting him, “they slowed it enough so that he wasn’t killed.”
“If you are going to voluntarily take part in sports there’s a chance you are going to get hurt,” Shapiro said. “If you lift a 530-pound bar up, the risk that you assume is that it is going to come down and injure you.”
The incident stemmed from the November 2003 Southern Maryland Open Bench Press and Deadlift Meet at Patuxent High School in Calvert County. Cotillo was competing, and wearing a Karin’s Xtreme Power double-denim bench shirt that he said let him to lift 150 pounds more than normal.
But as he was lifting the weight, witnesses said they heard the shirt tear. Within seconds, the bar came down and hit his face, knocking out several teeth and injuring his jaw.
“I had benched 600 pounds prior to meet, but for some reason it didn’t go up,” Cotillo said. “Next thing I knew I felt tremendous impact and heard a crunch.”
While Cotillo could have chosen his own spotters, he used the 14- and 15-year-old students provided by the meet. He said they were told not to touch the bar unless signaled by the judge because otherwise the lift would be disqualified — the “wrong thing” that he said led to his injury.
In January 2004, Cotillo sued the association, the Calvert County Board of Education and Patuxent weightlifting coach William Duncan in Calvert County Circuit Court. But the circuit judge ruled against Cotillo, saying he had assumed the risk of injury when he signed up for the competition.
On appeal, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals said that the risk of bench pressing does not include poorly trained spotters and that Cotillo’s suit should be heard on that issue.
But the high court reversed that ruling, saying Tuesday that the competence of the spotters was irrelevant. The court said Cotillo assumed the regular risks of power lifting, including the risk that the spotters might not be able to protect him.
“I’ve been let down by the same justice system I’ve worked for for over 20 years of my life,” said Cotillo, a Prince George’s County police captain. “They didn’t give me the satisfaction of giving me my day in court.”