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Defense in School 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.

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Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.

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