Our Clients Include
School Liability for Sport Injuries
by Philip C. Semprevivo & Orla McCabe
New York courts have long held that people taking part in a sport or recreational activity are deemed to consent to those commonly appreciated risks or injuries that are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally. Therefore, many sports injury cases, including those where a school or school district is the defendant, will be dismissed because of the doctrine known as assumption of risk. That said, there are a number of situations where a school can be held liable in a sports injury case. And, for this reason, educators should ensure that their athletic directors, teachers, and coaches have an understanding of what level of supervision or care is required and ensure that proper safety procedures and policies are in place.
Generally, in order for a school to be liable for a student's injury incurred during an athletic activity, an injured student or plaintiff will have to prove that the school was negligent. Schools are generally under a duty to exercise the same degree of care as would a reasonably prudent parent placed in comparable circumstances. More specifically, a school's duty includes the obligation to assign students to supervised, age appropriate athletic activities that are within their abilities and to protect students from unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks.
While schools have a duty to adequately supervise students, they will be held liable only for foreseeable injuries closely related to the absence of adequate supervision. Adequate supervision of students largely depends on the sports activity involved and the number of students participating in the activity and is usually determined based on the facts and circumstances of the situation. Sometimes an accident can happen so quickly that no matter how much supervision was provided and no matter how close supervisors were to the area of the accident, it would have still occurred. In that case, an allegation of inadequate supervision would fail. The courts do not view schools as absolute insurers of the safety of their students, and a school is not expected to continuously supervise and control all of its students' movements and activities.
As noted, a school can often successfully assert an assumption of the risk defense in response to allegations of negligence involving athletic activities. Risks that are known and fully comprehended, open and obvious, inherent in the activity, and reasonably foreseeable are assumed by the student athlete. For example, in a recent case in New York, a high school student brought a personal injury action against his school district, alleging that he sustained injuries while running hurdles due to lack of training by his coach. In response, the school district escaped liability by establishing that the student voluntarily engaged in the sport of track and field, including running hurdles, and was aware of the possibility of falling and injuring himself while participating in the activity. In another recent case, a basketball player, injured when a hole in the surface of the basketball court at a school yard caused him to fall, was deemed to have consented to the risk because the student voluntarily participated in the game and the hole was an open and obvious condition.
The experience level and age of a student athlete can often affect the success of an assumption of the risk defense. An assertion of the assumption of the risk defense is more likely to be successful if the injured athlete is experienced. For example, in a recent case, a School District was successful in showing, in an action by a high school lacrosse player to recover for injuries allegedly sustained during a collision with another player when a body check was being executed during an organized lacrosse game, that the player fully appreciated and voluntarily assumed the risk of injury in playing lacrosse. The District relied on the fact that the player was a highly-skilled and trained athlete who had been playing lacrosse since sixth grade and was well aware of the potential for injury resulting from collisions. The District presented deposition testimony from the player indicating that he had executed body checks approximately twenty to thirty times during each game and that he was employing proper body check techniques at the time of the injury. On the other hand, in an action by an inexperienced student pole vaulter to recover damages for injuries sustained when he landed feet first on a seam in the landing mats, which forced his feet apart and caused his knee to strike the pavement, the defendant School District was not entitled to a dismissal on the basis of assumption of the risk. The accident had occurred during the student's first competition, and the injury occurred when the landing mats failed to provide the protection they were intended to provide; the placement of the landing mats had concealed the risk of injury to the student.
Lastly, failure to provide proper supervision can also impact the success of the assumption of the risk defense. For example, in a recent case, a School District and operator of an obstacle course visited by students on a senior class field trip failed to provide proper supervision of obstacle activity, thereby exposing a student who was injured in a fall to unreasonably increased risks of injury. An employee of the District who was supervising the students had helped the student plaintiff climb onto another student's back which then precipitated the injury. Because the negligent actions of the employee supervisor were so closely related to the student's injury, the District was unable to secure a dismissal in the student's personal injury action.
In conclusion, although the assumption of the risk defense often is successful, there are few instances where that defense will fail, exposing schools to liability for student athletes' injuries. Therefore, schools should ensure that students are well supervised, involved in age appropriate activities, and encouraged to participate in activities that comport with their experience level. Schools should also make efforts to actively eliminate any risks that would not be apparent to student athletes and to invest in proper protective and safety equipment. Even further, coaches should see to it that athletes are properly instructed as to appropriate uses of the equipment and see that the equipment is properly maintained so that its effectiveness is maximized. Most importantly, schools should engage in efforts to recruit qualified and well-trained athletic directors and coaches who have been educated regarding the parameters of school liability for sports injuries and who will integrate uniform safety procedures and policies into school athletics programs.
Philip Semprevivo is a partner and Orla McCabe is an associate with the law firm Biedermann Reif Hoenig and Ruff. They regularly represent educational, religious, and other not-for-profit organizations in a variety of matters.