By Robert J. Romano, Esq.
A few years ago, a high school freshman basketball player at Campbell County High School in Cold Springs, Kentucky suffered a severe break of his arm during basketball practice. His parents, true to the litigious American culture, sued the school’s two basketball coaches. The negligence suit, filed against the coaches in their official capacity as employees of the board of education, claimed that the coaches “mishandled the situation”.
Coaches Are Generally Not Liable for Their Players’ Injuries
It has long been established in intercollegiate and high school athletics that schools, together with the coaches they employ, are not responsible for ensuring the health and safety of student-athletes. Moreover, schools and coaches are not held strictly liable for injuries sustained by student-athletes in the course of athletic participation.
In addition, courts have held that high school and college athletes assume the inherent risks involved with a sport. The voluntary nature of the athlete’s participation in the activity usually allows schools and coaches to escape liability for injuries that are considered part of the game.
Coaches Have a Duty to Take Reasonable Precautions
While athletes may consent to undertake a wide variety of risks inherent to their particular sport, there are certain risks which they may not necessarily assume. Courts have determined that even though schools and coaches are not strictly liable for player injuries, they do have a duty to their players and must do everything practical to minimize the risk of injury to players under their control.
A Florida court decision has given some direction as to when liability may be imposed upon high schools and coaches. In Leahy v. School Board, 450 So.2nd 883, (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1984), the court held as follows:
the duty owed an athletes takes the form of giving adequate instruction in the activity, supplying proper equipment, making a reasonable selection or matching of participants, providing non-negligent supervision of the particular contest, and taking proper post-injury procedures to guard against aggravation of injuries.
Several other courts have defined the duty of care owed by coaches and high schools to student-athletes. In Kahn v. East Side Union High School District, 75 P.3rd 30, (Cal. 2003), the court stated that a coach will breach his duty to a student-athlete if the coach “intentionally injures the student or engages in conduct that is reckless in the sense that it is ‘totally outside the range of the ordinary activity’ involved in teaching or coaching the sport.” The court went on to say that coaches do not have a duty to eliminate all risk presented by the sport but rather have a duty “not to increase the risk inherent to learning, practicing, or performing the sport.”
The More Dangerous the Sport, the Greater the Responsibility the Coach Bears
The relevant court decisions indicate that at a minimum, coaches must provide proper supervision, training, and instruction. Coaches should take measures to ensure that players follow the rules of the game in an effort to avoid injuries. Coaches must warn against all known dangers or dangers that should have or could have been discovered in the exercise of reasonable care. In addition, coaches must supervise their players in proportion to how dangerous the activity is. The more dangerous the sport, the greater the responsibility the coach bears.
Coaches Must Provide Proper Protective Equipment
In addition, coaches may be found liable if an injured player was not provided with the proper protective and safety equipment and, even further, the coach must see to it that the athlete was properly instructed as to the appropriate use of this equipment. A coach must also see that the equipment is properly maintained so that its effectiveness is maximized.
A coach may never be free from all potential theories of liability, but a coach can protect himself or herself by using reasonable care and ensuring that athletes under his or her supervision are fully prepared, and protected, before stepping foot on the field or court.
Robert J. Romano, Esq. is the founding partner of THE ROMANO SPORTS AGENCY, which specializes in representing NCAA and Professional League Coaches in all aspects of contract negotiations. For more information, visit his web site at www.romanosportslaw.com, or contact him at rjr2128.@columbia.edu