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What was supposed to be a friendly “sumo” contest between two businessmen has turned into a $9 million liability for Marriott International Inc. That’s how much an Orlando, Fla., jury recently ordered the hotel giant to pay a widow whose husband became paralyzed, and later died, from injuries he suffered in a sumo match during a convention at the Marriott Orlando World Trade Center in 1995. Contestants in such events wear costumes with padding thick enough to make them comparable to Japanese sumo wrestlers. The accident happened on Jan. 29, 1995, Super Bowl Sunday. John Gioffre, then 25, was attending a sales convention when he took part in a two-person contest in which one was carrying a football. He ran into his opponent’s shoulder and broke his neck. He died in 1999. A jury awarded his widow, Sharon Gioffre of Scottsdale, Ariz., $11.8 million. It found that Marriott was 75 percent responsible for the accident and ordered it to pay $9 million of that total. Gioffre v. Marriott International Inc., No. CI95-2010 (Orange Co., Fla., Cir. Ct.). “Marriott in no way had anything to do with what happened to Mr. Gioffre,” said Marriott attorney John Ward. “We think the sole cause of the accident was Mr. Gioffre. He was the sole and only cause of injury by his conduct.” But the jury disagreed. According to David Guiley, who served as local plaintiff’s counsel on the case, a Florida fire marshal had warned Marriott personnel that two other men wearing the same kind of suits had suffered knee injuries during a match a few days before the convention at the Marriott. ‘DANGEROUS GAME’ “They were warned that it was a very dangerous game and that it could cause injury, and they did nothing,” said Guiley of Maher, Guiley & Maher in Winter Park, Fla. “They didn’t take any measures to protect Mr. Gioffre.” Guiley said that Marriott considered the use of waivers “and decided no, it would scare too many people.” He also said that the manufacturer of the suit, the now defunct Entertainment and Leisure USA, of Orlando, never paid anything to the Gioffres because the company was insolvent. He said other sponsors of the event have settled out of court. Guiley said another strong piece of evidence was a videotape that was made the day of the game, allowing jurors to see both the match as well as the flimsy makeshift football field. Marriott plans to appeal. Roger Conner, vice president of communications for Marriott International Inc., said, “We feel strong about our appeal and our primary reason for appealing is that we feel there were substantial errors in the recent proceedings.”

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