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Mom alleges injury at unsanctioned B.C. martial arts tournament put son in vegetative state

A UBC international grad student faces an uncertain future after months in a vegetative state. His mother has filed a lawsuit alleging an improperly run martial arts tournament is to blame for his condition.

Police confirm investigation into what happened at 2023 Western Canadian Martial Arts Championship

A woman stands next to a young man in a wheelchair. She holds a photo of him before he was in a vegetative state.

Zhenhuan Lei had dreams of becoming a scientist, his mother said. He'd even conduct experiments late into the night. He once told her "life only affords a few chances."

But now Lei, a 26-year-old University of British Columbia chemistry grad student, is in a vegetative state and doctors say it is unlikely his condition will improve.

In a statement translated from Chinese and provided by her lawyer, Lei's mother Ying Li wrote she feels "as if I have experienced a death."

"A promising life of a future scientist, an ambitious young man, has now turned into lying in a hospital bed every day and staring at the ceiling," the statement read.

Li lays blame for her son's state at the feet of a number of people and groups involved with the Western Canadian Martial Arts Championship (WCMAC), which took place in October 2023.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, Li alleges organizers of the martial arts tournament failed to take steps to adequately protect fighters like her son.

She alleges the tournament referees and first aid attendant were unqualified and failed to keep him safe.

She also alleges the World Kickboxing and Karate Union Canada (WKUC) had no standing to sanction the event as B.C. law requires, making the event legally unsanctioned. And Simon Fraser University, the site of the tournament, did not ensure their facility was being used appropriately, the lawsuit alleges.

The allegations have not yet been tested in court. No statements of defence have been filed.

Burnaby RCMP have confirmed they are investigating but would offer no further details.

Li now holds a committeeship — which allows someone to make decisions on behalf of a vulnerable person — to manage her son's affairs. She is seeking damages including the costs of her son's past and future care.

Her lawyer, Erik Magraken, says the lawsuit is seeking accountability and answers about tournament matchmaking, rules enforcement and medical response.

"We're hoping to get answers to all of those questions," Magraken said.

'Very little likelihood' of improvement

In her statement of claim, Li alleges her son fought three bouts at the October 2023 tournament at SFU.

The lawsuit says he was competing in an event called "continuous kick light." Li's lawsuit claims that, in fact, Lei was in a kickboxing tournament. Video of one of Lei's bouts shows him and his opponent wearing boxing headgear, shin guards and gloves.

The event, according to the claim, was advertised as having "light" and "controlled" contact, and athletes with prior pro fighting experience were forbidden from entering.

However, one of Lei's opponents allegedly had competed in Thailand in "what would be classified as a professional bout in British Columbia," and organizers did not stop him from taking part in the tournament.

That opponent allegedly struck Lei multiple times beyond the force allowed and referees failed to enforce the rules. The lawsuit accuses him of battering Lei. It also claims Lei displayed "signs of injury" yet organizers and promoters did not review his condition, and he was allowed to fight again.

After his final match, according to the statement, Lei showed signs of "profound" injury.

"He vomited multiple times," Li's statement reads. "He fell in and out of consciousness."

The statement of claim alleges proper medical care was not ready at the scene. It alleges organizers didn't call an ambulance quickly or communicate with the emergency dispatcher effectively and it took paramedics 90 minutes to arrive.

Lei allegedly suffered an acute subdural hematoma, a type of brain bleeding.

"Every passing minute was critical in treating this condition," Li's statement said.

Identical sworn affidavits from two doctors at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster assert "there is very little likelihood that the condition of Zhenhuan Lei will improve or that he will be able to care for himself in the future."

Defendants offer little comment

The statement of claim alleges tournament organizers tried to skirt provincial safety rules for kickboxing events as a cost-cutting measure by calling the event "continuous kick light." But it was, in fact, a kickboxing competition, the claim alleges, so the WKUC was not legally able to sanction the event.

The World Kickboxing and Karate Union Canada and several people named as operators of that organization did not respond to CBC News requests for comment.

A person named as an organizer of the Western Canadian Martial Arts Championship wrote in an email, speaking on background, "Our hearts go out to this young man and his family and understandably, as this is now a judicial matter, we are unable to comment."

SFU says it is "assessing next steps but cannot comment further as this matter is before the courts."

Li spent four months in Canada with her son in hospital. They flew home to China on a medical flight Sunday. An online fundraiser has been launched to help cover what are described as onerous medical costs, including their flight.

"Now, I have to embark on another journey, caring for him in the latter part of his life," she wrote.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.

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