When is a School Liable for Injuries to Student Athletes?

When is a School Liable for Injuries to Student AthletesFor many, being a student athlete is one of the most rewarding aspects of their school experience. School athletics can teach our children discipline, hard work, teamwork and leadership. It is certainly reasonable to think that when a student plays scholastic sports, they are playing under the auspice of a responsible, safety-focused entity.

In fact, in many cases school boards and schools do take athletic safety seriously. But that does not mean that a school never bears any blame when a student athlete sustains an injury. In fact, there are many things that schools can and should do to keep student athletes safe, which are sometimes overlooked.

Injuries Outside the Game

Certainly, every sport carries with it the inherent risk of injury that exists in the sport itself. A legal football tackle can lead to injury, as can a fly ball that hits someone in the head. Not every sports injury that occurs during a school sporting event means that a school was negligent.

But there are often injuries that occur that are outside the confines of the game itself, that can lead to injury. Parents of student athletes who are injured, should look to the athlete’s injury and ask whether the injury could have been avoided or lessened through the exercise of reasonable care by the school. In those cases, a school is like any other business—it can be held liable for injuries caused by its negligence.

The Playing Area

One area that should always be examined is the condition of the field, court or playing area of the athletes. What looks like an injury caused by an otherwise legal tackle, may in fact be an injury caused by a poorly maintained field.

One particularly uncomfortable example was the basketball player who was impaled by a piece of wood jutting out of the basketball floor when she fell for a loose ball. Obviously, this would be an injury that would be caused by negligence, and which may even be called a “freak” accident. But it nonetheless demonstrates how important it is to examine the playing area that athletes are on.

Unfortunately, many schools with shrinking budgets, may do less than what is necessary, to maintain safe playing areas.

The Elements

Schools are under an obligation to take precautions to protect student athletes from weather elements like heat and lightning.

The dangers of excess heat were made famous by former NFL lineman Corey Stringer, a young, athletic Minnesota Vikings player who died of heat stroke during a practice. Experts termed his death as entirely preventable. If someone of Stringer’s training and size can succumb to the heat, so can even the most trained student athlete. Thus, schools are under an obligation to make sure that athletes that work in excess heat have access to shade, rest periods, and fluids.

The same can be said for lightning, which is deadly, especially in Florida. Florida routinely leads the nation in lightning deaths, and does so already in 2016. Open fields, such as the ones that athletes play on during football, soccer or golf practices, and water, such as swimming pools, are magnets for lightning strikes.

If a student athlete is injured because of the elements, do not assume the injury is a “freak” one, or that nature is random. It can be, but more often than not, there are precautions that a school can and should have taken to avoid such injuries.

Mitigating Injuries

In many cases, it can genuinely be said that an injury could not have been avoided by a school. But in those cases, the next question becomes whether the injury could have been mitigated by the school. More and more, schools are being legally required to have adequate responses on scene to student athletes.

For example, the law has evolved to require that schools have working defibrillators as well as staff that know how to use them available on site at athletic contests. Coaching staff or attending medical staff, may be legally required to have adequate CPR training. School boards have been held legally liable where an athlete was injured through no negligence of the school, but the athlete’s injury was worse than it should have been because of the failure of the school to respond properly.

The avoidance of injury also may extend to the school’s screening of student athletes. It may be hard for an aspiring athlete to hear that he or she should not participate in a sport because of an underlying heart condition. Or, that the athlete should sit out a season because of neck injuries.

But the school has an obligation to prevent participation where doing so could exacerbate already existing medical conditions.

Much of inquiring whether a school is liable may focus on internal policies of the school. For example, what kind of medical training is the school’s coaching staff required to have? Are they trained to spot warning signs of injury that may not be immediately obvious, such as the more subtle signs that accompany heat stroke or concussion? Does the school require the attendance of medical staff at all sports, or just certain ones?

These may all be jury questions. But whatever the nature of the injury, the overriding principle is the same: Do not assume that school sports injuries “just happen,” or that they are “part of the game.” Take a closer look, and make sure that a sports injury could not have been avoided, or that there was not a failure in the school’s policy or procedure that caused the accident.

If you are injured while playing sports, or if your child is injured while under the watch and care of a school, make sure your attorneys understand the legal issues involved. Call the injury attorneys of Brill & Rinaldi today for a free consultation to discuss your case.