Will the Fear of Litigation Undo Us All?
It is an article of faith that we live in a litigious society. Stories about people suing over items found in restaurant food or over a defective paint job on a new car have achieved the status of urban legend. Most state legislatures have become battlegrounds between the two sides in the tort debate.
These concerns are also being dealt with by sports administrators at all levels of amateur sports. Administrators and coaches have to deal with these issues as part of their everyday work environments.
One of the areas of concern for scholastic sports administrators deals with the extent of their liability for actions taken in the normal conduct of their daily jobs. Are basketball coaches, for example, personally liable for injuries sustained by players during a regular team practice?
This issue is related to the larger debate over the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity. This is an old common law concept. Since governmental power flows from the top down government officials should not be liable to the people at large for their actions. That question still resonates today—should government officials be immune from legal liability when their negligence is said to have caused injury to others?
In 1982 the Mississippi Supreme Court called for the abolition of this doctrine. The Mississippi legislature responded in 1984 with the passage of the Mississippi Tort Claims Act. This act provided for the protection of public officials from legal liability for actions undertaken during the regular course of their official duties. Mississippi courts have ruled that this law protects coaches of public school sports teams.
This same issue was raised in Kentucky by the case of Yanero v. Davis. The Kentucky Supreme Court denied a claim brought by the parents of a cheerleader who was dropped while performing a stunt, holding that the organization of school teams is a “public function” and thus sovereign immunity applies to protect school officials.
A similar situation occurred in Wisconsin when a young man was injured when struck by a baseball during a game. In Noffke v. Bakke the Court relied on the doctrine of sovereign immunity in affirming a defense verdict. Sovereign immunity, as defined by the Wisconsin statute, applied and the fact that baseball is a physical activity with physical contact creates an inherent level of risk.
Since the Noffke decision seven states have adopted laws detailing proper procedures for dealing with sports concussions and providing for legal protection for school officials who follow the guidelines set forth in the statutes. Several state high school sports governing bodies have established guidelines for taking breaks in early season football games to deal with heat related concerns.
Courts are consistently ruling that where school officials acting in an official capacity follow established guidelines they will be protected from legal liability. Legislatures and courts are seeking to protect young athletes while legally shielding the adults who deal with them.
This same protection does not extend to volunteers who work with young people in non-scholastic youth sports organizations. The trend in these volunteer organizations is to provide liability insurance protection for coaches and officials while also making certain that background checks are performed on all persons seeking to work with young people in these organizations. Little League Baseball, Inc. has taken a lead role in protecting young pitchers by instituting pitch count limits. Youth sports organizations can protect volunteers by providing training and setting up strictly enforced written guidelines aimed at preventing harm to the young people who play these games.
The sky is not falling. Youth sports administrators and officials should use common sense and always adopt and follow written guidelines regarding participation in and conduct of sporting activities. When this is done it is clear that youth sports will continue to provide positive benefits for the foreseeable future.
Mr. Tyler is the Director of the Library / Archivist at the United States Sports Academy. He is also a former practicing attorney.