Martial arts lawsuit defendants deny fault for man's brain injury

Zhenhuan Lei sits in a wheelchair at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster as his mother, Ying Li, holds a photo of her son before his hospitalization. Lei, through Li, has filed a lawsuit alleging people and groups connected to an October 2023 martial arts tournament are responsible for an injury that led to his vegetative state. (Liam Britten/CBC - image credit)

Defendants in a lawsuit alleging a negligent, unsanctioned kick-boxing fight left a novice fighter in a vegetative state are denying fault for his injury.

Injured man Zhenhuan Lei — through his mother, who holds a committeeship to manage his affairs — is suing people and organizations connected to the 2023 West Coast Martial Arts Championships, an October 2023 martial arts tournament in Burnaby, B.C.

They include five people named as tournament organizers, Lei's opponent in one of his three bouts, the alleged sanctioning body of the tournament and Simon Fraser University (SFU), which was the site of the tournament.

The lawsuit alleges their negligence contributed to Lei suffering a serious brain injury. The claims have not been proven in court.

An undated photo of Zhenhuan Lei prior to his accident. Lei was a chemistry grad student at the University of British Columbia.
An undated photo of Zhenhuan Lei prior to his accident. Lei was a chemistry grad student at the University of British Columbia.

An undated photo of Zhenhuan Lei prior to his injury. Lei was a chemistry grad student at the University of British Columbia. (Ying Li)

"These defendants deny that the tournament was negligently and/or grossly negligently operated," reads a response from the five involved in running the event.

In their response, filed in March, those five — three who say they were organizers and promoters, the other two who say they simply checked in competitors and judges — claim they "exercised all reasonable care, caution and skill in ensuring that the tournament was a safe and secure environment for all participants, including the plaintiff."

Lei alleges those five were negligent about tournament officiating and on-site medical attention. The tournament operators denied that.

"The referees at the tournament were experienced and duly qualified," their response stated.

"These defendants arranged to have proper and appropriate medical care available … and the plaintiff received properly qualified and appropriate medical attention during the tournament."

Lei's lawsuit alleges the tournament was a kick-boxing match that required sanctioning from the B.C. Athletic Commissioner or the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations (WAKO), the provincial sports organization for kick-boxing.

The defendants, however, claim the tournament was a different sport, kick light, described as a "continuous point-based light-contact tournament based on karate rules."

"Therefore no oversight by the B.C. Athletic Commissioner was necessary or required," their response reads, adding WAKO also had no oversight role.

They claim Lei signed a waiver, understood injury risks from fighting and, "at no point did [Lei] or his coach alert the referees or any of the defendants that [he] was injured and unfit to enter into a subsequent match."

Opponent, alleged sanctioning body, venue respond

Lei's lawsuit accused one of his opponents of striking him multiple times beyond the force allowed, battering him.

That opponent filed a response in April, however, claiming "he used no more force than was reasonably necessary to safely compete in the match and thereby protect himself and prevent bodily harm at the hands of [Lei]."

The opponent claims he followed tournament rules and "obeyed the referee's instructions during the match." He also denied having professional fight experience in violation of rules for tournament entry, as Lei's lawsuit alleged.

Two directors of World Kickboxing and Karate Union Canada filed a response to the allegation the organization sanctioned the tournament despite having no authority to do so.

"The WKU is not a sanctioning body," their response stated. "It has not and does not hold itself out to be a sanctioning body for the B.C. event.

"The WKU was simply asked if its rules … could be used for the B.C. event, and it agreed."

Those directors claim all aspects of the tournament, including sanctioning, were up to the promoter and other parties.

The lawsuit also alleges SFU did not take any steps to ensure the tournament was run to a "reasonable standard of care" in a gym rented out by the school.

"The premises … were reasonably safe for use by all competitors in the tournament who exercised a reasonable degree of care for their own safety," the school stated in its response.

SFU, in additional third-party filings dated from April and May, argues that if Lei suffered any injury at the tournament, it was the fault of other defendants.

Further, SFU claims if the event was kick-boxing as alleged, the B.C. Athletic Commissioner ought to have known about it and displayed "negligence" in failing to take action against the tournament and organizers.

SFU is asking the court for judgments against the other defendants, the athletic commissioner and the provincial government for any amount the school would have to pay to Lei.