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Student Died in Pancake-Eating Contest. Now Her Family Is Suing Sacred Heart University

By Robert Storace CT Law Tribune
October 30, 2018 at 12:40 PM

The family of a Sacred Heart University student who died after taking part in a pancake-eating contest is trying to bring awareness to the alleged dangers of such contests. It sued the university, claiming Sacred Heart is responsible for the March 2017 death of 20-year-old Caitlin Nelson.

The mother of a 20-year-old Sacred Heart University student who died after taking part in a school-sanctioned pancake-eating contest in March 2017 has sued the university, arguing the contest was a “terribly dangerous idea.”

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday in Bridgeport Superior Court and seeks unspecified monetary damages, said Caitlin Nelson’s death was “as foreseeable as it was horrific.” The 12-page lawsuit, which goes into lengthy detail about the hazards of having pancake-eating contests, said the aspiring social worker died when a glob of pancake paste filled her airway.

“Campus police officers responded and began frantically scooping pancake out of Caitlin’s mouth in a futile attempt to save her life,” the lawsuit says. “These officers observed that Caitlin’s mouth was compacted with pancakes, almost to her teeth, and the mass of pancake paste was like concrete.”

Nelson had planned to attend either Columbia, Fordham, or New York University after graduating from Sacred Heart, the second-largest Catholic university in New England. She died three days later from choking complications related to the incident, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also said the 55-year-old university has provided no information on how and why the contest was approved, considering the alleged dangers associated with it.

“Today, a year and a half after Caitlin’s death, her family is still waiting for answers,” the complaint states.

The court filing says that “only with transparency and accountability can future tragedies be avoided. This lawsuit seeks both.”

Kappa Delta, a school sorority, pitched the on-campus pancake-eating contest to the university, which approved it, the lawsuit said. Proceeds from the contest benefited the nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse America.

The lawsuit says Sacred Heart “should have known that an eating contest with college students participating posed an unreasonable risk of choking and death.” It goes on to say that the university’s risk assessment of the contest was “unreasonable and inadequate.” And, the complaint says, the university failed to provide adequate medical personnel at the event.

Three attorneys from Bridgeport-based Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder represent Rosanne Nelson, Caitlin’s mother, a New Jersey resident. Those attorneys, Katherine Mesner-Hage, Josh Koskoff and Alinor Sterling, all declined to comment.

But in a press release, Mesner-Hage wrote: “Caitlin’s family is bringing this case to expose the dangers associated with amateur eating contests, and to help prevent other families from having to endure this type of preventable tragedy. These contests are significantly more dangerous than people realize.”

Michael Iannazzi, vice president for marketing and communications at the Fairfield-based university, declined to comment Tuesday.