February 23, 2018

Student Sports Injury and School Liability

Sports Injury Liability

Nationwide, 7.6 million students participate in interscholastic athletics, according to U.S. News and World Report. Keeping them safe is critically important to avoid school liability and sports injury lawsuits. And when sports injury occurs, schools may be found responsible if they failed to take reasonable precautions and supervision of students in order to prevent sports injury. Parents send their children to school with the implicit expectation that schools will do whatever is necessary to keep them safe whether in the classroom or on the football field.

Although there is inherent risk in athletic competition, parents rightly expect that coaches will take reasonable and proactive measures to protect student athletes from harm. In the vast majority of cases, coaches do exercise prudent judgment and care. Sometimes, though, coaches are careless or deliberately indifferent, thereby jeopardizing the health and safety of the athletes under their care. Many states have very strict immunity laws protecting schools and coaches for acts of negligence. However, a careful analysis of the actions and inactions taken by coaches that caused injury to an athlete can be introduced by a plaintiff in order to overcome immunity claims by schools.  


Policies and Training of Coaching Staff are Key to Preventing Athletic Injury

As expert witnesses, we have encountered many cases in which students suffered physical or emotional sports injuries during their involvement in school athletics. Examples include instances of bullying, hazing, and sexual harassment on buses to and from interscholastic events while coaches were not paying attention. Other examples involve inappropriate behavior, physical assaults, fights, and initiation of younger team players while the coach was in his office with the door closed. Often, such behavior is excused as “boys being boys” or “kids being kids.”

A variety of circumstances on or off the field could potentially lead to personal injury of students. Unstructured practice time, unsafe premises, faulty athletic equipment, failure to follow established school policies, lack of policies, inappropriate and abusive behavior of coaches, and tolerance of such behavior are just a few examples.  Any of these circumstances may place students in situations where they can suffer sports injury, leaving schools liable for those injuries.

To avoid such situations, a school would be wise to begin with a two-step approach. The first is to develop policies that explicitly prohibit hazing and require that coaches, teachers, and anyone else in a supervisory capacity exercise proper care of students. Proper care involves appropriately supervising athletes, ensuring safe facilities, following state guidelines for interscholastic athletics, and directing students to appropriate medical care, if needed. The second step is to ensure that those responsible for carrying out those policies understand them and follow through on procedures for their implementation. It is prudent, for instance, for the athletic director to hold a preseason meeting with coaches before the start of fall, winter, and spring sports or any sports camps to advise coaches of their responsibilities. Parents and students should be invited to those meetings so that they also know the standard of care that coaches are expected to uphold and, if necessary, share their concerns with the athletic director.


School Liability for Unsafe School Premises and Defective Athletic Equipment

Because schools have a duty to provide safe facilities and grounds, they should periodically inspect locations where student activities are taking place. Failure to inspect school premises may be grounds for school liability. In one case in which our firm was engaged for expert witness services, a soccer player incurred serious injury during practice on the school athletic field. On several occasions, the coach and others reported to school officials that there were holes or deep depressions on the field, making the field uneven and potentially dangerous. The school did not fix the reported problem and, during practice, a student stepped into a deep depression, permanently injuring her ankle. In such situations, the school are negligent and often have actual knowledge of the dangerous conditions and deliberately ignores the notice, resulting in student sports injury.

In another case, during a softball game the center fielder’s face became stuck to the wooden outfield fence when she attempted to field a ball. As her face brushed up against the fence, a large sliver of wood entered her check, pinning her to the fence until someone came to dislodge her. Such personal injuries may be avoidable if playing facilities are regularly inspected. Upon inspection, unsafe conditions on athletic fields, gymnasiums, and related facilities must be promptly alleviated. Records of such inspections should be kept to ensure that inspections actually occur and to protect the district from a claim of an unsafe condition and school liability.

In certain situations, a school may not be responsible for the condition of its premises and the safety of others. In a 1984 case, (Begin v. Georgia Championship Wrestling, Inc., 172 Ga. App. 293, 322 S.E. 2d 737) a spectator at a wrestling exhibition was injured when her foot got stuck between two seams of plastic covering the gymnasium floor. The three-foot wide plastic strips had been placed around the wrestling ring by the school where the event was being held. The plaintiff sued the promoter of the event and not the school where it was held. The court clarified that, although the school was the sponsor of the event and employees placed the covering on the floor, the plaintiff was an invitee of Georgia Championship Wrestling, Inc., the promoter. The promoter was the occupier of the premises and, as such, is charged with the duty of keeping the premises safe for invitees even though the activity was held in the school gymnasium. An occupier of premises is under duty to inspect the premises to discover possible dangerous conditions  of which he does not know and to take reasonable precautions to protect the invitee from dangers which are foreseeable from the arrangement and use of the premises. (Prosser, Law of Torts (4th ed.) 393, 61)  


Coaches Should Exercise Reasonable Standard of Care to Prevent Student Sports Injury

To protect athletes, coaches should be proactive and consider everything they can do to prevent foreseeable athletic injuries. Participants in interscholastic athletics are students first and athletes second. As such, coaches are in the position of providing, at a minimum, “parental control” and must exercise judgment that a “reasonably prudent adult” would take to ensure the safety of students. That means for example, creating practice and game conditions that are safe, such as pitting athletes of equal (rather than unequal) ability against each other and modeling sportsmanship and ethical behavior.

Sometimes, coaches may be inclined to push athletes into a game situation for the sake of a win. Instead, coaches should have the attitude that the safety of student athletes is more important than wins. They should follow guidelines prescribed by their State Athletic Association regarding concussions or drink breaks, for instance. All reports of injuries should be taken seriously and medical attention provided, even if only precautionary. Many high schools today have athletic trainers available at practices, but some have trainers only at games or not at all.

The same attitude of injury prevention applies to physical education classes. Physical education teachers should routinely monitor and ensure the safety of physical education facilities and equipment. They should take all claims of injuries seriously and have students examined by the school nurse if they claim to be hurt. In our experience, many tragic injuries — and even death — have resulted from dismissing a student’s initial complaint as inconsequential.

Coaches should supervise athletes at all times — while they are in the locker room before and after practice, waiting to be picked up after practice, and any time they are on school grounds. Students are far less likely to do something inappropriate if they are properly supervised and if they know that certain behaviors are not tolerated. When coaches fail to supervise and a student is injured, the school may be held liable.


Schools Should Continually Monitor Athletics to Minimize Sports Injury

Finally, school administrators should ensure that coaches and physical education teachers conscientiously carry out their responsibilities. When everyone does their part, the school may avoid liability claims and costly litigation. But absence of claims is not the goal; ensuring the health and safety of student athletes is the goal. If safe conditions are in place, if coaches and physical education teachers supervise students appropriately, and if they respond to injuries quickly, then the likelihood of student athletes becoming injured will be greatly decreased — and students, parents, and the school will all benefit.

School Sports Injury Lawsuits and Duty of Care

Students Injured in School Gym Class

School Sports Injury Lawsuits

Injuries are a part of intramural and extramural sports and recreation programs. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, high school athletes account for 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations each year. There’s a certain level of risk assumed by a child who participates in any physical activity, but the school or agency has a general duty to protect children from harm to avoid school sports injury lawsuits. Dereliction of that duty may result in any number of situations that a jury may consider negligent, such as failure to develop and implement appropriate policies and procedures for supervision, poor maintenance of equipment, or inadequate instruction of children about the dangers inherent in their activity.

Schools and agencies are not always the only liable parties. Sometimes, the child might contribute to his or her own injury by acting in a negligent way. Generally, older children assume greater responsibility for their own safety, though this also depends on the child’s capacity to understand that what he or she does might cause an injury. In general, however, a board of education in the United States and each school authority in Canada have a statutory duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the students entrusted to their care.  The governing board is responsible for developing policies. These policies, designed to provide reasonable assurance that children are safe in school, on trips, or at school-sponsored events, are to be carried out by administrators, teachers and staff. Such policies may govern hiring, supervision, training and retention of staff; evaluation, selection, maintenance and control of sports equipment; inspection and maintenance of shop equipment; development of lesson plans, including instructions and warnings where necessary; and emergency-response procedures. Organizations like the YMCA and private day care centers have similar responsibilities to protect children from harm. Standards governing professional practice in such organizations typically come from agencies that certify, accredit, or provide oversight. Additional standards may be promulgated by federal, state and municipal bodies.

A jury may construe the absence or faulty implementation of such policies as a breach of the professional standard of care. Not having the right policies or not following those in place may be determined to be a proximate cause of injury. Even when a school or agency has all the right policies and implements them appropriately and within the professional standard of care, an injury or death may still occur — and an analysis of the facts and the context of the incident is necessary to reveal the burden of liability.

Duty and Standard of Care in Sports Injury Cases

Procedures derived from these policies describe specific responsibilities that teachers, coaches and other adults assume to protect children from harm. The responsible person must assess the location where an activity takes place: Is there anything that can possibly cause injury to a child? How about those telescopic gym bleachers, for instance? In one case, a child in a relay race suffered a concussion when he fell into bleachers that weren’t stored properly. Is potentially dangerous exercise equipment properly maintained? A child using a resistance band while exercising sustained an eye injury when the band snapped. The physical education teacher had not checked the band for wear and tear. Does something as ubiquitous and easy to overlook as a portable basketball backstop look safe? A child in a daycare center injured her eye when she fell onto an exposed bolt on the base of a backstop.

The teacher, coach, or other supervisor has a duty to correct, control, or warn of any dangers. If, after surveying the gym, a supervisor notices that the bleachers are not stored properly, no activity should begin until the situation is corrected. The playing surface provides yet another set of considerations; in the example above, the relay race was on a hardwood floor, yet the teacher allowed the boy to participate in the race in his socks. Any reasonable teacher or coach would understand that it is unsafe for students to run with obstacles in the path or without appropriate footwear.

Teachers and coaches have a duty to control students’ use of athletic equipment. After assessing whether equipment is safe, the supervisor must oversee its use. The physical education teacher didn’t properly instruct the student in the use of the resistance band, nor was he watching the student at the time of the incident. Children don’t always have the sense or the intellectual capacity to protect themselves from harm, nor do they always consider how their use of equipment might harm themselves or someone else.

A reasonable person would understand that having the right safety devices in place to prevent injury or death is within the standard of care for protecting children. The daycare center volunteer who assembled the basketball backstop failed to place the rubber protective cap over the bolt as instructed by the manufacturer resulting in injury to the little girl. Unfortunately, schools and other organizations don’t always act reasonably as the example of a real case below will demonstrate.

School Sports Injury Lawsuit Example

When the track-and-field coach announced, “Practice is over!” a student heaved one last javelin. Downfield, another student who was retrieving her equipment didn’t see the javelin coming her way. She faintly heard someone call “Look out!” As she stood up, the javelin struck her and embedded in her head just two inches above her temple. She was fortunate, in a sense, that it missed hitting her eye. The student and her parents sued the school district and the coach for negligence.

Track-and-field practice is a school-sponsored activity that takes place on school property and is supervised by a school employee. This places the responsibility for student safety squarely on the school. The coach had supervised dozens of practices in the past and had a familiar routine. The javelins were stored in a locked field shed along with other equipment, such as shot puts and hurdles, before and after practices and games. At the beginning of practice, the coach often gave a student his key and asked him to go to the shed and bring certain equipment to the staging area of the field. Next, he organized the students into groups and gave them instructions as to what events to practice. He reminded the students of safety when throwing: Look downfield before throwing to be sure it is clear; only one student at a time is allowed at the line to throw; and be sure that, when going to retrieve a javelin, no one is on the line to throw.

So far, the coach did everything to meet the professional standard of care. Practice lasted for two hours. Students followed his instructions while he provided general supervision. Could the coach have done more to prevent this injury?

Control of dangerous equipment. There are caution labels on the 8-foot javelins: “Warning: Before each use, make sure landing area is clear of people.” Athletes are also warned against removing the label. But is it the student’s responsibility to read the label — or is it the duty of the coach to control the javelins? Just because there is a label on the javelin doesn’t mean that the student will read and abide by it. Coaches need to assume that students will not read the label. Any reasonable coach would know that he or she must control a javelin.

What should the coach have done? First, don’t trust that students will act in their own best interest or in the best interest of others. Kids can be impulsive, they don’t always read instructions and warnings and sometimes simply want to do things their own way. And that can lead to disaster. Instead of announcing that practice was over, the coach should have collected all the javelins. At that point, the equipment (also classified as a weapon) would be in his control — the safest place to be at that time. Only after collecting the javelins should the coach have announced that practice was over. Were this simple procedure followed, the student on the line would not have had a javelin in his hand. Second, the coach should have been watching downfield to assure that no students were there when a student was on line to throw.

Good supervision and instructions to students, control of equipment, and observation — all parts of reasonable professional care — were lacking. If present, this injury likely would have been prevented.

Both defendant and plaintiff attorneys should begin their analysis of similar cases with following questions:

  • Did the school (or other organization like YMCA, summer camp program, daycare, etc.), through its administration and/or other employees, act appropriately and reasonably within the relevant standard of care to protect children, including the plaintiff, from harm?
  • Did the school conduct itself in a way that placed the plaintiff in harm’s way?
  • Was there a breach of standard in the field and would a reasonable person, teacher, coach, or school nurse understand that certain actions and procedures are inherently necessary to protect children from harm?
  • If there was a breach, were there any intervening variables not under the control of the school or other organization?
  • Did the child contribute to his or her own injury — or was the equipment faulty?

Sometimes, schools and other organizations do everything right but accidents still happen. A careful review and analysis of the elements of duty, breach of duty, and the injury is an important factor when considering the merit of filing a lawsuit or the strength of its defense.