When the buzzer sounded, Caitlin Nelson did what any other person in an eating contest would do — she started shoveling food into her mouth as quickly as possible. In this case, the food was pancakes.
Only Nelson wasn’t a professional competitive eater. She was a 20-year-old junior at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., participating in a school-approved event intended to raise money for charity.
Moments after the contest began in March of last year, Nelson started to “shake uncontrollably” and collapsed, according to a lawsuit filed by her family Monday in the Superior Court of Bridgeport, Conn.
When police responded, they discovered Nelson’s mouth “was compacted with pancakes almost to her teeth,” the lawsuit said. One officer said the “glob of pancake paste in her airway” was “like concrete.”
Nelson died days later, and her cause of death was ruled asphyxia as a result of an obstruction of her airway, the Hartford Courant reported. Tests at the hospital revealed Nelson had suffered severe brain damage from oxygen deprivation, the lawsuit said.
“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,” the family’s attorney, Katie Mesner-Hage, said in a statement sent to The Washington Post early Tuesday. “These contests are significantly more dangerous than people realize and it’s critically important for the public — especially educational institutions — to understand that certain foods are safer than others and a modicum of forethought can literally save lives.”
The lawsuit, which is seeking damages in excess of $15,000, called Nelson’s death “as foreseeable as it was horrific,” alleging that the university is at fault for allowing the pancake-eating contest to happen. The event was part of the university’s annual Greek Week celebration, described in the lawsuit as a “festive and service-oriented culmination of Greek Life on campus.”
The university said it is unable to comment on ongoing litigation in an email to The Post on Tuesday.
Beyond the “inherent risks” of holding an eating contest with participants who are not professional speed eaters, the lawsuit also pointed out the “particular hazard of pancakes.”
Cooked pancakes, which largely consist of flour and liquid, turn into a “thick glob of paste” when they come into contact with saliva or other liquids, the lawsuit said. Several parenting sites include pancakes, and other breadlike items, on lists of foods that may be choking hazards for small children. One site recommends that pancakes be cut into “small cubes” and that a drink be offered when eating the popular breakfast staple.
“Once a person’s airway is obstructed by a glob of macerated pancake paste, rescue becomes exponentially more difficult,” the lawsuit said.
One of the officers who initially administered aid to Nelson recalled “pulling, with my bare hands, the pancakes out of her mouth,” trying to open her airway, according to the lawsuit. When emergency services arrived, attempts to use the Heimlich maneuver were “not successful” and mechanical suction was “ineffective,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit alleges that Sacred Heart University “failed to investigate the safety of a pancake eating contest before granting approval” and did not consider safer alternative foods, such as whipped cream or ice cream, both of which will melt before obstructing a person’s airway.
The university also allegedly did not have “adequate and appropriate medical personnel” at the contest who could respond if any of the participants started choking, the lawsuit said.
Instead, the lawsuit said a crowd of students attending the event, which included Nelson’s “closest friends and sorority sisters,” watched as she choked to death.
“It was a tragic event,” Fairfield Police Lt. Robert Kalamaras told The Post at the time. “Our condolences go out to the family, who lost their loved one,” and to “the Sacred Heart community, because a lot of them lost a good friend.”
Nelson had plans to become a licensed clinical social worker with a specific focus on helping children suffering from serious illnesses, Monday’s statement said. Her father, James Nelson, a Port Authority police officer in New York, was killed trying to rescue people trapped in the World Trade Center during 9/11, The Post reported.
“The death of a 20-year-old college student is always tragic,” the lawsuit said. “It is only sometimes 100% preventable. In the case of Caitlin Nelson, it was both.”
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