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How Time Warner Beat a 'Promise' to an Injured Chinese Gymnast

Sang Lan was paralyzed while preparing for the 1998 Goodwill Games. Fifteen years later, Time Warner is on the verge of defeating a lawsuit over the incident.

When a big media company puts on an international event and something goes wrong, it can be a tightrope managing the potential public relations fallout.

Sang Lan was a former world-class gymnast from China who was going to be competing in the 1998 Goodwill Games, a quadrennial competition conceived by media mogul Ted Turner and later sold to Time Warner.

As the gymnast was warming up for a vault event that year, she fell and fractured two vertebrae and her spinal cord, rendering her permanently paralyzed from the mid-chest down.

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After the horrible accident, Goodwill Games President Michael Plant pledged that her medical needs would be taken care of by insurance. "I can't speak to the long-term, but it is our commitment to do what we can," he said. "Ted Turner and (then Time Warner CEO) Gerald Levin are both concerned."

Harvey Schiller, then president of Turner Sports, also made pledged to do "everything within our power to assure that her future is secure."

In a lawsuit brought in 2011, Sang alleged that didn't happen. But a magistrate judge is now recommending that Time Warner be given a soft landing.

According to her complaint (read in full here), Sang said that the Chinese gymnastics team selected Kao-Sung Liu and his wife, Gina Hiu-Hung Liu to be her "guardians" to handle dealing with Time Warner. Sang says she was informed that if a negligence lawsuit was brought against the media company, "any hope of getting assistance from Time Warner would be extinguished."

Sang didn't bring a lawsuit back then. She says she could have. Among other claims, she said that experts of the sport agreed about "Time Warner's lack of organization or supervision," and the organizers allowed too many people to be in close proximity to the vault horse when athletes were performing dangerous routines. She also accused Time Warner reps of seizing tape of her injury from a man who was making a film and that they were "clearly concerned."

As the media focused on what happened immediately after the injury, and as Sang got enormous attention and hospital visitors including Celine Dion, Christopher Reeve, Leonardo DiCaprio, The Goodwill for Sang Lan Fund was set up. Time Warner contributed to it. According to Sang, "Whenever there was a question about Time Warner's responsibility, Time Warner carefully diverted the attention away from the potential liability it may have toward Sang Lan, by emphasizing the need to focus on medical issues."

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But around 1999, things started going badly. She accused Turner of reneging on a promise to help her financially and the Lius of not providing accounting records of money donated to the fund.

The feud between Sang and the Lius continued for many years. By 2011, Sang was accusing her guardians of failing to return items donated by well-wishers and continuing to use her name and portrait in advertisements without her consent. In turn, the Lius purportedly made comments that she was lazy, couldn't urinate on her own, and planned to seek asylum in the United States.

A lawsuit brought by Sang against Time Warner for breach of contract, promissory estoppel and undertaking and reliance reached magistrate judge James Francis.

On April 19, Judge Francis issued a 66-page report that recommends that Time Warner's motion to dismiss be granted.

Regarding Sang's claim that that public comments by Time Warner executives represented an enforceable contract to secure her financial future, the judge says that the statements identified by Sang aren't specific enough. With no details about the form, frequency and amount of payment, it is deemed to be "too vague to spell out a meaningful promise."

Sang's lawyers also attempted to win on another legal theory: Time Warner had assumed a duty to provide her financial support and partially performed this duty over her care. She relied on the assumption of duty and was damaged by that reliance when she refrained from asserting her rights in a legal action against Time Warner.

Judge Francis spells out what's wrong with the theory. If Time Warner cut off support for her in 1999, as she alleges, "nothing Time Warner did prevented Ms. Sang from engaging in any course of action that was available to her prior to Time Warner's intervention. Indeed, at that point, she would even have been able to file a timely legal action against Time Warner for her injuries at the Games."

Here's the full report and recommendation, which also goes into the claims that Sang brought against the Lius. In short, most of the claims emanating from what happened to Sang immediately after the Goodwill Games injury is on the verge of being rejected, but the Lius are still facing claims over alleged defamation and privacy violations.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner