Sports negligence: Can coaches be blamed for injuries?

Roughly 1.5 million young men participate in football each year, and over the course of the season, about 1.2 million football-related injuries are reported. Minor injuries may not come as a surprise due to the heavy contact that is required in this sport, but according to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, there were also a total of 13 deaths related to the game of football in 2017.

football players on the field at night

It is well-known that football and other contact sports can be dangerous to participate in, but are the coaches to blame for these injuries and deaths? This article will analyze the ways in which coaches can be held liable for their players’ injuries/ death, and how the standard of liability changes throughout the different levels of play.

How are professional coaches responsible for football injuries?

In terms of injury liability, the professional sports world operates just as if an employee were to suffer an injury at their place of work. In that case, the injury or death of an employee is typically subject to the workers’ compensation law of the state in which the person is employed. In some cases, these laws can operate to protect coaches – even in the face of dangerous training practices.

athletes carrying an injured football player

Some of the greatest and most successful coaches have also been responsible for some of the most brutal training techniques and philosophies. For example, in the summer of 2001, Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings collapsed due to heatstroke during a training session. However, under Minnesota law employers and coworkers are protected from liability for an employee’s death or injury except when ‘gross negligence’ or ‘intentional harm’ can be proven. In this case, that would be hard to prove because training in the summer heat is a common practice in the football world. Without the ability to prove those two factors, the coaches could not be legally held responsible for Korey’s death.

How are lower-level and amateur coaches responsible for football injuries?

Coaches at the high school and college level do not enjoy the same level of protection as the coaches at the professional level. Most suits that come up against these coaches are based on the theory of negligence, under which the claimant must prove:

  1. That the defendant owed a duty to conform to a standard of conduct established by law for the protection of the plaintiff
  2. That the defendant breached that duty
  3. That the defendant’s breach was the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injury
  4. That the plaintiff suffered a compensable injury

In other words, coaches have a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable risk or harm to others. The issues come with establishing the applicable standard of care in each individual case.

These principles are applied to sports all around the country. A case involving these issues recently played out in Baton Rouge, when an elementary school basketball player fractured his leg during a practice scrimmage.

elementary school child playing basketball

Prejean vs East Baton Rouge Parish School Board

In the case of Prejean vs East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, the mother of an elementary school basketball player who suffered a fractured leg during a practice sued the school and coaches for not protecting against foreseeable harm. The incident occurred when the 27-year-old volunteer coach participated in a scrimmage in which he bumped one of the players, causing him to fall on a student’s leg and fracture it. The trial court found that by being involved in the scrimmage, the defendant had breached his duty to protect Harvey from foreseeable harm.

The appellate court then reversed the decision, stating that the coach did not put Harvey in any more danger than he would normally be in while participating in a basketball scrimmage. Therefore, the incident was not a foreseeable consequence of the coach’s participation in the scrimmage, and did not breach his duty “to supervise his players in a reasonable manner and to protect the players from foreseeable harm.”

Ultimately, the question of any coach’s negligence will be highly fact-specific. If it can be proven that the coach’s actions (or lack thereof) contributed to the death or injury of an athlete, then the coach can be held liable.

If you or someone you know has been injured and a coach may be responsible, contact the attorneys at Allen & Allen today at 866-388-1307.