An amateur women’s rugby player is being sued for £10 million after she allegedly left an opponent paralysed from the waist down following a tackle.
Dani Czernuszka, 34, claims she broke her spine after Natasha King “belly-flopped” on to her during a league match between her team, Reading Sirens, and Bracknell Ladies in October 2017, the High Court heard.
The “slightly-built” personal trainer claims her “much heavier” opponent had earlier threatened she was “going to break me” after the pair clashed during the match in Sonning, near Reading.
She alleges Ms King was playing with “aggressive physicality” and was bent on “retribution” when she tackled her in a rolling scrum.
Now paralysed from the waist down, Mrs Czernuszka, from Reading, is suing Ms King in a legal first for the ladies’ game.
But Ms King, who was not penalised by the match referee for the clash, denies that the tackle was a bad one and has suggested that injuries are part and parcel of a contact sport like rugby.
Opening the case on Tuesday, 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 3, 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 allegedly “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, Mr Justice Spencer.
He described Mrs Czernuszka’s position as “extremely vulnerable” and noted a size disparity between the two players, telling the court:”The claimant was thereby pinned in a bent over position by the actions of the first defendant.”
“She sustained an immediate severe spinal fracture and spinal cord injury as a direct result of this tackle,” he said.
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.
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, Mrs Czernuszka said she had begun 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”.
But lawyers for Ms King, from Bracknell, Berks, insist the tackle she executed was “perfectly proper” and that Mrs Czernuszka had her hands on the ball when she tackled her.
Geoffrey Brown, her barrister, said: “The tackle was a legitimate one in the eyes of the match official and both RFU officials charged with reviewing such matters.
“The assessment of the referee was that there was nothing wrong with Ms King’s tackle.”
The barrister also took issue with claims that Ms King’s tackle was an act of retaliation for an earlier clash.
In Ms King’s written defence to the claim, Mr 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.
“There was nothing wrong with the physical contact used to make the tackle or the… defendant’s tackling technique.
“The tackle was not made or executed unreasonably or unlawfully.
“She did not show or have any disregard – let alone reckless disregard – for the claimant’s safety. Ms King did not land on the claimant with excessive force.”
The trial continues.
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