A BJJ white belt was awarded a $46 million dollar in damages this week after being seriously injured during sparring. In November of 2018 at Del Mar Jiu-Jitsu Club (DMJJC) in Del Mar, California, 23-year-old Jack Greener sustained a neck injury that left him with partial movement in his extremities and has confined him to a wheelchair for practical movement.

A beginner student, with reportedly some wrestling experience, Greener began rolling with instructor Francisco ‘Sinistro’ Iturralde, after the 10 minutes of warmup and 20-30 minutes of technique typical in a BJJ class. Iturralde attempted a “Leo Vieira” back take while Greener was in turtle position, and Greener went to invert by rolling over his shoulders and putting Iturralde back in his guard. These simultaneous moves placed all of Iturralde’s weight on Greener’s neck, and caused the white belt to go limp as the exchange ended.

After a four week trial, a California jury found defendant and DMJJC-owner Michael Phelps fully culpable for damages, and ordered the club to pay $46 million to Greener. According to his lawyers, Greener underwent multiple surgeries, and was hospitalized for months. He has been diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia, meaning he has weakness or paralysis in all four limbs, and is mostly confined to a wheelchair when not walking with great effort.

According to a report from the Daily Beast, the damages included $8.5 million for future medical expenses, $11 million for past pain and suffering, and $25 million for future pain and suffering.

BJJ black belt Tom DeBlass was one of many jiu-jitsu specialists to circulate the recently released footage of the incident on their social media pages.

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November ’18 security footage shared by Tom DeBlass and Gordon Ryan
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Renner Gracie reveals trial involvement in Instagram post

As more information on the case reached the public, BJJ coach and one-time Shark Tank participant Rener Gracie revealed he was called in as an expert witness. He discussed the situation and general need for safety in an Instagram post, but not before laying primary blame for the incident on Iturralde.

“[Iturralde] did a technique that placed his entire bodyweight on Greener’s neck causing him to instantly fall limp and lose all function of his limbs,” Gracie wrote.

He ended the post by promoting his own school’s safety protocol stating, “At Gracie University, the safety of our students will always be our top priority and it will always be a core reason why we do things the way we do.”

Gracie also expounded on his involvement in the following video:

Following the verdict, Iturralde made a public response to the case in an Instagram post this past Friday. “Back in December 2018 I had an experience that changed the way I see JiuJitsu forever,” he wrote.

Iturralde gives context to Greener’s experience level, claiming he isn’t just a random white belt and saying he’s a former wrestler. According to Iturralde, Greener joined DMJJC in June of that year and trained regularly in the five months before his injury. Describing the accident, he wrote, “[…] I attempted a back take from turtle (a technique I have been using for over 20 years), at the same time my student attempted a “Gumby Roll”(wrestling move). As a result of the exchange of techniques the student suffered spinal injury.”

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Statement from Francisco Iturralde regarding injury case.

He went on discuss how Greener has recovered some function in his limbs, and decried Gracie for what he calls a “false” and inaccurate testimony.

“After Rener Gracie convinced the jury with his false statements, they claimed I was guilty and awarded 47mil to the plaintiff. Rener sold his testimony for over 100k. While him, lawyers and other profited about this situation, I was harassed in every platform and wrongly crucified for supposedly causing the accident,” Iturralde wrote.

These misgivings did not stop Iturralde from admitting fault at court. During the trial, Greener’s attorney Rahul Ravipudi remarked that, “[…] Mr. Iturralde testified that he knew his obligations were to be safe and minimize risk for his white belt student, Jack Greener, and that he failed to do so by attempting a dangerous move without any control over his student or himself. Despite these admissions, defense counsel continued to deny responsibility and minimize the harms and losses to Jack Greener who was weeks away from graduating from college and starting his career as a professional surf instructor in Costa Rica. His life as he knew it was taken away from him on November 29, 2018.”

Apart from veteran figures such as Gracie and Deblass, many in the jiujitsu scene have been hotly debating this issue since news originally broke. It’s worth pointing out that many of these takes also came without properly understanding the actual legalities involved.

Erik Magraken of Combat Sports Law explained the legal situation far better in his video:

Here’s a few things to note.

The jiujitsu white belt won’t receive $46 million.

“The plaintiff will never see that $46 million. That’s just the dollar figure the jury wrote on a sheet of paper,” Magraken explained. “The plaintiff can’t collect what isn’t there.”

The BJJ school and its insurance policy won’t have limits that reach that total. According to Magraken, the likely scenario is that the Greener could get the defendant’s policy limit, then work out a deal with the gym for a payment plan, or the gym goes bankrupt. At the end of the day, the plaintiff isn’t going to see anything close to that figure amount being grabbed by the headlines.

Negligence has nothing to do with malicious intent, or recklessness.

One of the hotly debated issues is whether or not the instructor was being malicious or reckless doing that move against a white belt, or if it’s all just an unfortunate accident. That’s partly missing the point, as in court, the only thing that matters is if he was negligent, which is more of about him being careless.

“If you watch the footage, it is clear the instructor didn’t intend to injure the student,” Magraken said. “But these lawsuits are based on negligence. It just comes down to carelessness. So the question, was it careless for the instructor to try this high rolling back take when the plaintiff’s head was in an unsafe position? A jury said yes. If you run this trial again, a jury might say no, but that’s just the way the system works. We’re simply talking about coaching carelessness.”

There is no precedent. BJJ isn’t dying.

A lot of the outcry here also seems to be that this lawsuit will set a precedent, and that BJJ’s future is somehow at stake.

“What’s interesting is that nobody is saying that the fact that someone can be paralyzed is going to hurt jiujitsu. They’re saying the fact that there is a lawsuit is going to hurt jiujitsu. The reality is, that is not true,” Magraken states. “This lawsuit didn’t create any new precedent. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change the law.

“The law always has been and still is, if you’re a coach, you have to take care of your students. You have to teach things in a reasonably safe way, and if you don’t you can be sued for the harm you caused. Here the jury thought the coach didn’t do things safely. That’s all this case is about. It’s not going to undo the sport.”

About the author
Kevin Bradley
Kevin Bradley

Kevin Bradley is a writer covering Bloody Elbow’s grappling beat. A longtime BJJ hobbyist, he began covering combat sports in 2018 for the Jiu-Jitsu Times with athlete interviews and fight breakdowns. He branched into audio the following year, producing and co-hosting the JJT Podcast for its 100 episode run. After a writing hiatus, occasionally contributing to various sites in the interim, he joined BE in late 2022.

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