A female rugby player who sued an opponent for £10million after she was paralysed for life by a horror tackle has won her High Court fight for compensation.
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.
The ‘slightly-built’ personal trainer claimed her ‘much heavier’ opponent had earlier threatened she was ‘going to break me’ after the pair clashed during the match near Reading.
She claimed Ms King – who has an ‘intimidating’ reputation – was bent on ‘retribution’ when she poleaxed her by ‘belly flopping’ on her during a rolling scrum.
Ms Czernuszka sued her rival personally for damages in a High Court trial earlier this month and today Mr Justice Martin Spencer ruled in her favour, blaming Ms King for her devastating injuries.
Dani Czernuszka (pictured outside London’s High Court), 34, broke her spine after being tackled by ‘angry’ opponent Natasha King during a ruck in a league match in 2017
The decision means Ms Czernuszka is entitled to a massive 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 £10m.
Giving judgment, the judge said 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.
‘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 five foot three inches tall, was in a ‘crouched position’ waiting to receive the ball from her side when the other woman put in her tackle, he said.
Ms King took hold of her thigh and ‘exerted her full weight downwards onto 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 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.
Ms Czemuska claimed Ms King (pictured) had earlier threatened she was ‘going to break me’ after the pair clashed during the match near Reading
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.
From the witness box, Ms Czernuszka herself said she began to feel nervous as the game wore on, particularly after a team mate told her she believed she was ‘going to get done’.
And she claimed Ms King made her feelings clear when she overheard her say: ‘that f***ing number seven, I’m going to break her’.
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 Ms 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.
‘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.
‘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 fucking 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.
Ms Czernuszka claimed Ms King – who has an ‘intimidating’ reputation – was bent on ‘retribution’ when she poleaxed her by ‘belly flopping’ on her during a rolling scrum
‘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 well-being 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.