High school sports injuries: Who is liable?


It’s one of the rare times a huge crowd of rowdy people goes absolutely, completely silent: a high school football player is down on the field. Fear and concern wash over everyone in attendance, regardless of rooting interests.

Unfortunately, it seems to be happening more and more, with the latest tragedy occurring in Illinois, where Andre Smith, 17, passed away after suffering injuries during a game.

Seven young players have died from football injuries this year, and we’ve also seen scary, violent acts on the field, most notably when two players attacked a referee toward the end of a game in Texas. The players later went on “Good Morning America” and said they were ordered to attack the ref by their coach, who then confirmed their story.

When things like this happen at football games, which are often part of the very fabric of a community, who’s at fault? Or is anyone?

Looking for clarity

Head injuries from sports like football and girls’ soccer are getting the most press, but accountability is unclear. Washington, D.C. attorney Peter Anderson of the Grenier Law Group explains liability around head injuries like the one that claimed the life of Smith, and also Kenney Bui, a 17-year-old football player from Seattle, who succumbed after three days in the hospital:

“The liability could actually fall on both the doctor and the school district in that situation,” Anderson states. “If the doctor examined the player in his or her official capacity as an employee of the school district, the district could be found vicariously liable under a legal doctrine known as respondeat superior. However, if the doctor is an independent contractor and is acting on his or her own discretion and not under direct control of the school district, the school district could escape liability.”

As for on-field violence, it’s a bit trickier, especially in the situation that went down in Texas, with the players attacking the ref on orders from a coach. Anderson thinks there’s a possibility of criminal charges against both the players and coach, but he doesn’t think the school district could be held liable in a civil suit.

“A school district can only be held liable for the actions of employees who are acting within the scope of their employment. The school district would argue that the coach ordering his players to attack a referee was far outside the scope of his duties,” Anderson says. “The only other possibility to attach liability to the school district would be to argue that it was negligent in hiring the coach.”

Liability is high school sports injuries will always be tough to untangle. Especially in head injury cases, because of what Anderson calls “assumption of risk.” Basically, players have to know—or at least suspect—there is some danger in repeatedly smashing heads with other people as they do in football, and to a lesser degree in hockey and lacrosse. Lawsuits have attempted to argue that the magnitude of the risk was not known, and could have been prevented.

What’s next?

It’s also true that the National Football League’s concussion litigation may have started a ripple effect in other sports. For example, there is a multi-district consolidated suit against the National Hockey League that’s similar to the one against the NFL. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, meanwhile, has taken a proactive step, reaching a settlement in a class action suit to pay for medical monitoring of players.

How this cascade of litigation will impact high school sports remains to be seen. From a legal standpoint, the liability of injuries is murky, but hopefully, rule changes and better, more-informed coaching will result in fewer seriously injured players. Then we can applaud the play on the field, instead of collectively praying for a young athlete crumpled on it.

Related articles on AvvoStories: