Family Sues University Where 20-Year-Old Daughter Died in a Pancake Eating Contest
The family is hoping to "expose the dangers associated with amateur eating contests," according to their lawyer.
Over a year after 20-year-old Sacred Heart University student Caitlin Nelson died from choking in a charity pancake-eating contest on campus, her family is suing the school for her alleged wrongful death.
The lawsuit alleges that Sacred Heart was at fault for allowing the pancake-eating contest to happen, claiming that the university “failed to investigate the safety of a pancake eating contest before granting approval” and did not have “adequate and appropriate medical personnel” who could respond to a choking at the contest, according to the papers obtained by PEOPLE.
It also alleges that the university did not consider alternative foods like ice cream or whipped cream for the contest — which, unlike pancakes, don’t turn into a “thick glob of paste” when they come into contact with saliva.
“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 to PEOPLE. “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.”
Her family is seeking damages in excess of $15,000.
Representatives for Sacred Heart told PEOPLE that the Catholic university is “unable to comment on ongoing litigation.”
As PEOPLE reported last April, Caitlin was minutes into a pancake eating contest on March 30 when she began to choke and became “unresponsive.”
Police arrived at the event, as part of the university’s annual Greek Week celebration, and found her “not breathing” with “pancakes almost to her teeth” and the “glob of pancake past in her airway.”
Suffering from severe brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, she was taken to a hospital where she died days later. Her cause of death was ruled death by asphyxiation.
“The lack of oxygen for that extended period of time caused irreversible damage, making it not survivable,” Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara told PEOPLE at the time.
The New Jersey native was a junior studying social work and was vice president of her Kappa Delta sorority’s community service group. She led the organization’s philanthropy, planned Girl Scout events, and worked closely with Cinque at the Newtown Resiliency Center where she volunteered to mentor children impacted by the tragic events of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings.
“There wasn’t anyone more selfless than her. She always had a smile, always there for the kids no matter what you asked of her she would do it and she did it with such grace and such love,” close friend Stephanie Cinque previously told PEOPLE. “She was a beautiful human being.”
Caitlin’s father, James Nelson, was a Port Authority officer killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He was helping evacuate people from the 27th floor of one of the Twin Towers when it collapsed, according to CTPost.com. Caitlin was 5 years old at the time of her father’s death.