Wrongful deaths at eating contests on the rise

When Caitlin Nelson entered a charity pancake eating contest on March 30th, it was just a part of who she was. The daughter of a 9/11 responder who tragically lost his life on that day, Caitlin had dedicated her life to helping others. She was a certified youth mental health counselor, and a student at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Tragically, the contest came to an abrupt end after she’d eaten a number of pancakes. Caitlin collapsed to the floor and began violently convulsing. Despite immediate medical aid and hospital care, she passed away on April 2nd. She is a sad addition to a recent rash of wrongful deaths at eating contests, and other special competitions.

On the same day that Caitlin passed away, a Denver man died in a contest held by Voodoo Doughnut. Travis Malouff was trying to eat a half-pound doughnut in under 80 seconds. The contest was held by all stores in the Voodoo Doughnut franchise, which has locations across the US and Taiwan. In a statement to the press, the restaurant has declared an immediate suspension to this contest at all locations. An official investigation into the situation is under way.

What ultimately killed Caitlin Nelson and Travis Malouff was asphyxia, caused by her airway being blocked by food. As tragic as these two wrongful deaths are, they are not the only times where similar contests have cost people their lives.

How dangerous is competitive eating?

While there is much to be said about the health risks of competitive eating, asphyxiation is considered one of the greatest dangers. It is through training that competition eaters gain the ability to consume such quantities of food. The training also helps with proper breathing techniques, to avoid potential suffocation while maintaining speed-eating. However, some of these ‘pro-eaters’ know the limits of their stomachs, and force themselves past them. This has resulted in serious internal injuries, and as we’ve recently seen, wrongful deaths.

It is important to note that Caitlin Nelson and Travis Malouff were not professionals at this sort of contest. Nor were these contests part of some sanctioned, record-breaking effort.

Wrongful deaths in these contests not limited to eating

Sacramento residents may recall a similar contest held by radio station KDND, 107.9. In 2007, the Nintendo Wii was impossible to find in stores due to unprecedented demand. When KDND’s morning show held the ‘Hold Your Wee For A Wii‘ contest, participants rushed to join all in hopes for the new video game console. One of them was a 28-year-old Jennifer Strange, mother of three. She would die hours after the contest ended to water intoxication. The Strange family would eventually file a wrongful death lawsuit against the owners and operators of the station. A jury would award them $16,577,118.

Who is ultimately responsible for wrongful deaths at an eating competition?

The short answer is that “it’s complicated.”

Even small contests and competitions often require signing a waiver. However, even if that waiver contains legalese that says the contest organizers cannot be held liable, this is not true. Jennifer Strange signed a waiver, the radio DJs even bragged about it on the air that the station could not be sued only hours before she died. The station would be successfully held liable for her death in 2009.

While controversy and criticism bombards competitive eating, the organizers of official venues understand the risks. Medical personnel are always on hand, and can pull someone out of the contest if their life is at immediate risk. Emergency treatment is available at most major contests, due to how swiftly a person’s condition can turn for the worse.

Unfortunately for Caitlin Nelson and Travis Malouff, their contests apparently were not as prepared. It remains to be seen who will be held responsible for their wrongful deaths. It also remains to be seen how these two new statistical additions will affect such contests in the future.

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