Avoiding Mismatches

By Sawyer, Thomas H. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview
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Avoiding Mismatches

Sawyer, Thomas H., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance

Koffman v. Garnett

Record No. 020439

The Supreme Court of Virginia

574 S.E. 2d. 258

January 10, 2003

In the fall of 2000, 13-year-old Andrew W. Koffman began his first season of organized football by joining his middle school's football team. Andy was a third-string defensive player on his team, which had just lost its first game. James Garnett, the assistant football coach, was responsible for the supervision, training, and instruction of the defensive players.

Following the loss, Garnett was upset with his players for their inadequate tackling. His displeasure with their tackling intensified at the next practice. During that practice, Garnett ordered Koffman to hold a football and to "stand upright and motionless" so that Garnett could demonstrate the proper tackling technique to the other defensive players. Then, without any warning, the 260-pound coach wrapped his arms around Koffman's 144-pound body, lifted him more than two feet and slammed him into the ground. The impact of the tackle broke Koffman's humerus bone in his left arm. This was the first time at the middle school that any coach has used physical force to instruct players on the techniques of football.

The Complaint

Andy's parents filed a civil suit against Garnett on behalf of their son in order to recover damages for his injury. The action alleged the torts of negligence, assault, and battery. Garnett filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state causes of action for gross negligence, assault, and battery.

Trial Court Verdict

The trial court granted Garnett's motion to dismiss, finding that Garnett, as a school board employee, was entitled to sovereign immunity for acts of simple negligence and that the facts alleged by the plaintiffs were insufficient to state causes of action for gross negligence, assault, and battery. The trial court based its decision on the fact that Koffman assumed the risk of injury when he joined the school's football team. The plaintiffs decided to appeal the trial court's verdict.

Supreme Court Findings and Judgment

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The appeal did not challenge the trial court's ruling on Garnett's sovereign immunity defense; instead it asserted that the plaintiffs gave sufficient facts to support the claims of gross negligence, assault, and battery. The Supreme Court of Virginia's ruling reversed the trial court's decision on the issues of gross negligence and battery, finding that the complaint sufficiently alleged both causes of action. However, the court upheld the dismissal of the assault claim.

One fact that was central to the Supreme Court's decision to overrule the trial court's holding on gross negligence was the difference in size between Koffman and Garnett. Another was the fact that Koffman had no reason to believe that he would be tackled, because it was the first time that any coach had tackled a player on the team. The Supreme Court found that these facts could lead reasonable persons to disagree as to whether or not Garnett's actions amounted to gross negligence. Accordingly, the court held that a jury should decide whether Garnett's conduct amounted to gross negligence and that it should not be dismissed as a matter of law.

Similarly, the high court held that the facts that were presented supported a claim for battery. Virginia courts define battery as "an unwanted touching, which is neither consented to, excused, or justified." Thus, the issue of whether a battery took place hinged on whether Koffman consented to being tackled by Garnett. The defense argued that by joining the football team, Koffman agreed to being tackled by any of the coaches, including Garnett. Koffman asserted that his consent extended only to being tackled by other players and, in order to support his stance, stated that this was the first time at this school that a coach had tackled a player.

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Avoiding Mismatches


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