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Teacher sues over fall during donkey ball

The woman claims she was riding an improperly trained animal when she fell and was injured at a church fundraiser.

Published March 6, 2006

SAFETY HARBOR - Hairy, with oversized ears, small feet and long tails, the Dixie All-Stars are not exactly NBA material.

But they know how to play basketball, even wearing rubber-soled sneakers, of a sort, as they plod up and down the court. They also occasionally bray EE-aw , EE-aw , for these All-Stars are donkeys.

But one day in December 2003, at a fundraiser for Espiritu Santo Catholic Church, one of the All Stars apparently wasn't in the mood to play hoops. It wanted Michelle Novotny to get off its back, she claims.

The donkey either bucked or threw Novotny, then a fifth-grade teacher at the school, onto the gymnasium floor.

According to a lawsuit filed Feb. 22, the fall caused injuries to Novotny's hips, thighs, neck and back.

Novotny and her husband, Robert, are suing the Diocese of St. Petersburg, the parish and Ken Schappacher, owner of Dixie Donkey Ball. The suit seeks damages in excess of $15,000.

Novotny "was injured all over," said Louis Kwall, a Clearwater lawyer representing her.

"She had at least two hospitalizations and one surgery as a result" of the fall, Kwall said Friday.

The lawsuit accuses the diocese and the parish of failing to provide safe activities at the fundraiser, failing to make sure the donkey ball game was safe and failing to properly advise her of the risks involved in riding a donkey in the game.

It also says that Schappacher failed to properly train the donkeys, allowed donkeys with a history of unpredictable behavior to participate in the game, allowed Novotny to ride an unpredictable animal and that he encouraged the donkeys to act unpredictably.

The diocese' attorney for the suit, Joseph DiVito, countered Novotny's accusations.

"She's alleging we were negligent in not inquiring about the company," he said Friday. "We did that, and asked them to supply a certificate of insurance. That was furnished."

He also noted that Novotny had signed a waiver form releasing the other parties from any damage claims before she climbed on the animal and rode onto the court.

Vicki Wells Bedard, the diocese's director of community relations, said in a statement, "While the topic may be humorous on the surface, it will be treated in a dignified manner, and all the relevant facts will be studied."

Bedard said Novotny was employed at the school for four years, teaching fifth grade. In 2004, her contract was not renewed.

Calls to Michelle Novotny and Dixie Donkey Ball were not returned.

According to its Web site, the Dixie Donkey Ball show travels through Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. It states the donkeys are trained for this type of event and that they wear non-skid shoes that will not harm gym floors.

While the purpose of staging the games is to raise funds and to amuse the spectators, the activity can be dangerous.

In 1997, an East St. Louis, Ill., jury awarded an Illinois man $110,410 in a suit that claimed he was injured when he fell from a donkey during this type of ball game.

That man said an employee of the business supplying the animals - not Schappacher's company - prodded his donkey with a plastic baton while the rider was trying to shoot a basket. The donkey bucked, causing the man to fall. During the fall he was kicked in one knee by the animal, requiring surgery.

In 1996, a Maine man sued yet another donkey ball company, after he said he was bucked off a donkey. He claimed he permanently injured his knee, forcing him to quit his jobs as a janitor and school bus driver. The result of that suit could not be determined.

--Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or

[Last modified March 6, 2006, 00:58:14]

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