Robert Hopkins slid down a railing in the upper deck of Ralph Wilson Stadium four times last fall. His fifth slide landed him on another fan in the level below. It also landed him in Orchard Park Town Court.
Stadium video surveillance of the incident from the Nov. 17 Bills game against the New York Jets was shown in court Thursday. The footage revealed that Hopkins slid partway down the metal railing on the edge of Section 339 and climbed back up to his seat multiple times before falling backward on his fifth attempt. He tumbled 20 to 25 feet and landed on Mark Bratcher, who was sitting with a friend in section 240.
“That enjoyable day was about to become a nightmare,” Assistant District Attorney G. Michael Drmacich said during opening statements before Orchard Park Town Justice Edward A. Pace. “It came out of the blue. Literally, it came falling out of the sky.”
The fall happened at 1:39 p.m., between the game’s first and second quarters.
Bratcher, 29, a middle school social studies teacher at South Buffalo Charter School, testified Thursday that the impact was a “crushing blow.”
“The pain’s with me still today,” he said.
When Hopkins fell on him, Bratcher said he was confused. “At that point, I had no idea what had just happened to me,” he said. Bratcher suffered injuries to his neck, back and shoulders and said he has a limited range of motion.
“Any prolonged activities cause me discomfort,” he said, noting the difficulty he has sitting, standing and turning, which poses a problem at work.
He said he missed two weeks of work and had to use all of his sick time. He isn’t able to participate in the recreational activities he enjoys, such as running.
He also has trouble getting uninterrupted sleep because of the discomfort.
Watching an entire movie with his girlfriend is out of the question, too.
“Essentially my entire life was impacted,” said Bratcher, who has received physical therapy since November. He said his pain level fluctuates.
Hopkins, 29, of Buffalo, is charged with third-degree assault and second-degree reckless endangerment, both misdemeanors. If convicted, he could face up to a year in jail.
After the incident, he lost his job in advertising and public relations with Eric Mower Associates and was banned from Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The prosecution and defense agree that the trial will hinge upon whether the incident was reckless.
Drmacich said that shortly after the incident, Hopkins told sheriff’s deputies, “It’s true. I didn’t mean to, I feel bad.”
However, defense attorney Patrick J. Brown argued that Hopkins didn’t commit a crime.
“Every accident isn’t a crime,” Brown said. “This was an unfortunate accident, it shouldn’t have happened, Rob is responsible but it isn’t a crime.”
In all, nine witnesses testified Thursday. Glenn Attanasio, a fan sitting in the same section as Hopkins and near the edge he fell over, testified that he saw Hopkins slide five times during a span of up to 10 minutes.
Attanasio said he heard someone say loudly, “Stop that, you’re gonna hurt yourself, you’re gonna fall,” and another shout, “You’re gonna kill yourself.”
Kaitlin VanderWeide, an emergency medical technician for Rural/Metro Medical Services, was in the ambulance that transported Hopkins to Erie County Medical Center. She said Hopkins was jovial and relaxed in the ambulance but became serious when he asked about Bratcher’s condition.
VanderWeide testified that Hopkins mentioned he had some alcoholic beverages that day and smelled of alcohol.
Eric Fattey, a physical therapist at Buffalo Rehab Group, said Bratcher has had more than 40 visits since late November. The trial continues at 9 a.m. today.