One Strike and You're Out: The Need for Risk Management Courses

By Sawyer, Thomas | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, March 1993 | Go to article overview

One Strike and You're Out: The Need for Risk Management Courses


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


Thousands of the nation's high school students are injured each year in gyms and on playing fields. Those injuries should concern school administrators, physical educators, and coaches, not only because of the human costs, but also because of the potential litigation costs involved. Sport and physical activity-related injuries increasingly have become a fertile ground for litigation. While the doctrine of sovereign immunity once protected school districts, this protection has slowly eroded over time and school districts in many states can now be sued much like anyone else. In other words, every sport and physical activity-related injury today is a potential lawsuit.

A school district may be liable for such injuries because of the doctrine of respondeat superior. Under that doctrine, an employer is liable for negligent acts committed by employees while acting within the scope of their employment. That means that a district is liable for the negligent acts of its coaches, physical education instructors, athletic directors, teachers, and principals. The school district, however, is not the only potential defendant. Coaches, physical education instructors, athletic directors, teachers, and principals can also be sued, and held personally liable for injuries occurring in sport and physical activities.

To lessen the danger of being sued, school officials must structure and conduct their sport and physical activity-related programs so as to minimize both the risk of injuries occurring in the first place (risk management) and the risk of being found liable for injuries that do occur. That, in turn, requires some working knowledge of the basic legal claims that are generally available to injured students.

The most likely claim is negligence. Negligence is a vague concept and the question of whether someone acted negligently is more a function of the facts than of a legal formula. That does not mean, however, that school officials are left without any overarching principles to guide them in structuring their physical activity programs so as to minimize the risk of liability. The basic principles of negligence are neither unmanageable nor mysterious. In many ways, negligence simply means failing to use common sense.

Institutions of higher education that prepare future professionals to organize and implement sport and physical activity programs should consider requiring all students to complete a course to familiarize them with the legal aspects that are involved in sport and physical activity litigation. Risk management should be covered in such a course. It is no longer adequate to spend three or four class periods on legal aspects relating to sport and physical activity in an organization and administration class.

In the past 10 years, the area of sport and physical activity litigation, particularly in the fields of fitness and sport, has increased dramatically. …

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One Strike and You're Out: The Need for Risk Management Courses
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