Negligence in Coaching
Liability for civil wrongs, such as the tort of negligence, is a prevalent and crucial part of the American legal system. Negligence is defined as behavior by a person divergent from what an ordinarily prudent and reasonable person would have done in the same situation. Private parties must have recourse for redressing civil infractions against their persons and property; otherwise parties would be tempted to take matters into their own hands. Conversely, there must be a firm burden of proof for establishing a negligence case, or defendants could be harassed with baseless lawsuits to no end.
To this end, courts have established a four-pronged approach for analyzing negligence claims. Plaintiffs must prove 1) that the defendant had a duty, 2) that the defendant breached that duty, 3) that the breach was the cause of the resulting injury, and 4) that the plaintiff suffered actual damages. All four elements are indispensable for making the case; the lack of any one is enough to exonerate the defendant from any culpability. In Sanders v. Kuna Joint School District [876 P.2d 154 (Ct. App. 1994)], the Court of Appeals of Idaho made this point emphatically, to the plaintiff’s detriment.
In that case, Josh Sanders, a student at Kuna High School, broke his ankle while sliding into first base during a softball game. The game was played during class time, and was supervised by the plaintiff’s physical education instructor, Ron Emry. Emry offered no directions on how to play softball before the game began, nor were students informed until they arrived that their weight-lifting class was to be replaced by an outdoor softball game. Subsequent to his injury, Sanders sued Emry and the school, claiming negligent supervision, negligent instruction, and negligence on Emry’s part for not inspecting the plaintiff’s shoes (Sanders was wearing running sneakers) before play began.
Emry and the school successfully countered that, though the underlying facts were true, there was no causal link between Emry’s inaction and the injury the plaintiff sustained. That is, though Emry likely had a duty to make sure his students were properly prepared and had the proper equipment for each of his classes, and although Sanders clearly sustained physical damage, the court reasoned that instructions from Emry before play began would not have prevented the injury. There was simply no proof that Sanders executed an imperfect slide; injuries sometimes occur as part of a game, regardless of how careful the participants are.
As to the plaintiff’s uninspected footwear, the court was unimpressed with the evidence presented to support the claim that the running shoe was at fault for the injury.
Though perhaps not ideally suited for softball games, the plaintiff’s footwear was still designed for athletic activity. Moreover, there was again no evidence that even a sneaker perfectly suited for softball games would have prevented the injury.
The law governing this area of negligence was first laid out in the landmark decision of Vendrell v. School District No. 26c, Malheur County [376 P.2d 406 (S.Ct.Or.1962)]. That case dealt with the responsibilities of a football coach, but the language and analysis of the Oregon court is easily applicable to other sorts of coaching situations. The court there said that slight injuries occurring in-game could not be laid at the doorstep of a coach because of the impossibility of guarding against such an occurrence when people are engaged in physical activity. However, the court determined that injuries beyond that were the coach’s responsibility to forestall. Though “bruises, jolts, and hard falls” are an inherent and inextricable part of sports, the “shocks, blows, and other rough treatment” that could be protected against through proper supervision and equipment are the coach’s and school’s responsibility.
This analysis was applied soundly in the Sanders case. Even if Emry had acted unnecessarily and enunciated every danger of softball and how to avoid them before the game began, there was no evidence that any of those instructions would have prevented the plaintiff’s injury. Sanders’s injury was more as a result of the “hard falls” of softball, rather than any sort of “rough treatment” that occurred as a result of improper supervision. The “rough treatment” category of head-butting football players can easily be distinguished from the more passive interaction between sliding ankle and first base.
When the facts of a case clearly demonstrate improper supervision of “rough treatment” athletic activity, the courts have had no trouble imposing liability. In Brooks v. Board of Education of City of New York [205 N.Y.S. 2nd 777 (1960)], the court found in favor of the plaintiff who was injured during a game of line soccer due to a physical mismatch between him and his opponent. The court stated that a physical mismatch in a “hazardous” game such as soccer should have been more closely supervised.
The essence of any legitimate legal system is the ability to predict rulings. Generally true to form, there is some stability in the field of coaching negligence that can be identified. First, a general distinction can be made between “run-of-the-mill” sports-related injuries and those resulting from “rough treatment.” The type of game being played might be an indication of how great a level of supervision is needed. A run-of-the-mill injury occurring during an otherwise generally rough sport like football might be scrutinized more carefully than even the “shocks and blows” of a less brutal game such as softball. In addition, confrontation between two human beings, as opposed to between student and unsophisticated equipment, might be a key factor to consider in determining whether the supervising agent will be held responsible for any injury that occurred.
Courts must use prudence in juggling the arguments of parties to a negligence claim. Parties that have been wronged deserve compensation, but the court must determine the costs and benefits of a defendant’s situation. If a court says a coach/school is responsible for preventing injury type X, a school might have to hire an expert in the field of X in addition to the coach. This re-allocation of limited resources might dearly affect the budget of other crucial school services.
For example, in a 2008 Seattle case, a coach was relieved of liability for injuries a student sustained when he pitched in all five of his team’s baseball games during a two-week stretch, throwing in total approximately 425 pitches. The decision was rendered in favor of the defendant primarily because the coach did not know enough about the dangers of high pitch counts at the time of the incident. Had the coach been held responsible, the school he worked for, as well as any other school concerned about future litigation, might have had to change who they hire or how many people they hire, with all the attendant financial consequences that then come in to play.
It is perhaps because of such concerns that the courts in recent years have turned towards an emphasis on assumption of risk as a guidepost for analyzing cases of coaching negligence. That is, parents and students are obliged to understand the possible consequences of participation in sports and soberly sign away the right to litigate, even in cases of ordinary negligence. Only in extraordinary cases of “gross” negligence might the parents then be able to logically claim they did not foresee such ineptitude by the supervisory agents when they signed the release form.
Cotten, D., & Wolohan, J. (2003). Law for recreation and sports managers: Fourth edition. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Neish, M. (1996). Tort liability in high school sport. Retrieved April 30, 2008, from Bnet Business Network Web site: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FIH/is_/ai_n18606910
Wyrwich, T. (2008). Jury rules district wasn’t negligent in North Mason High School pitcher’s lawsuit. Retrieved May 1, 2008, from Seattle Times Web site: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/highschoolsports/2004293408_websuit19.html
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