Can a school district and its employees be liable for a student athlete's injury?

Father and son claim gross negligence

Can a school district and its employees be liable for a student athlete's injury?

A California court has ruled in favor of a school district in a suit filed by a student athlete who sustained injuries during a game.

In Brown v. El Dorado Union High School District, a high school sophomore suffered a traumatic brain injury at a varsity football game. He, through his mother and his father, filed a personal injury action against the El Dorado Union High School District.

The evidence showed that every student athlete received an athletic handbook accompanied by the school district’s release of liability and assumption of risk agreement, as well as a concussion/head injury information sheet for parents, which the son and his father signed. The handbook’s packet also included a sheet explaining to parents the signs and symptoms for concussions and head injuries.

Read more: Baseball players awarded over $1.8 million in penalties in class action

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant school district. Since the father and his son signed the release and waiver before the football season, the affirmative defense of an express assumption of risk and the principle of primary assumption of risk barred the plaintiffs’ case, the trial court ruled.

The California Court of Appeal for the Third District affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The form signed was a valid and express release of liability and an assumption of risk, which covered the negligent acts of the school district and of its employees and all injuries the son would suffer playing football, including concussions and traumatic brain injuries, the appellate court decided.

By signing the release, the plaintiffs expressly assumed the risk caused by the employees’ negligent acts while coaching, training, instructing and supervising the son as he played football and while diagnosing and treating him for injuries, the appellate court held. The plaintiffs also agreed to release the school district and its employees from any liability in connection with such negligence. These employees included coaches and volunteers.

According to the appellate court, express waivers of negligence claims in recreational activities were allowed. The waiver relieved the school district of its legal duty to the plaintiff and barred it from liability for negligence.

Gross negligence was an exception, but in this case the plaintiffs failed to establish gross negligence in the way that the school district and its employees monitored, instructed or provided medical care to the son. The appellate court noted that the school district submitted evidence showing that:

  • The district ensured that the coaches all received the concussion training required by law and by the California Interscholastic Federation’s bylaws;
  • The coaches closely watched the players for signs of head injuries consistent with what they learned in the concussion training that they received;
  • The coaches saw no symptoms exhibited by the son until he collapsed;
  • The coaches advised students to take themselves out of the game if they were injured;
  • The district, via the handbook, provided families with information about the signs and dangers of concussions;
  • The district complied with the recommendations of the California Interscholastic Federation for medical staff at games;
  • A chiropractor attending the football game examined the son immediately after he collapsed;
  • The on-site EMT ensured that the son was in an ambulance soon after his collapse.

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