Failure to Teach Skills in Progression Results in Injury, Lawsuit

Article excerpt

Kahn v. East Side Union High School District et al.

31 Cal. 4th 990 August 28, 2003

Olivia Kahn, a 14-year-old novice swimmer, was a member of the junior varsity swim team of East Side Union High School District in Santa Clara County, California. Kahn did not have prior experience as a competitive swimmer and had a deep-seated fear that she would suffer a traumatic head injury from diving into shallow water. Both coaches were informed of her fear. Coach Andrew McKay assured Kahn that, although three out of the four team members who participate in a relay must dive into the pool, she would not be required to dive at meets. Rather, she would be the relay race team member who started from inside the pool.

On the date of the injury, Coach McKay informed Kahn, minutes before the meet was to begin, that she was not permitted to start her relay from inside the pool. Kahn testified that unless she dove off the starting block, Coach McKay would not allow her to participate. Two teammates offered to show Kahn how to perform the racing dive, and, without any coaches' supervision, she began to practice diving from the starting block into the shallow racing pool. Kahn subsequently broke her neck executing a practice dive from a starting block into a three-and-a-half-foot-deep racing pool.

The suit alleged that the injury was caused in part by the failure of Coach McKay to provide the swimmer with any instruction on how to safely dive into a shallow racing pool. Additionally, the lawsuit claimed that the coach breached the duty of care owed to the swimmer by insisting that she dive at the competitive swim meet despite her objections, lack of expertise, and fear of diving, and in contradiction of his previous promise to exempt her from diving. The injured swimmer further argued that McKay failed to adhere to the Red Cross safety manual, which outlined a specific progression for teaching shallow-water diving. The amount and degree of diving instruction that Kahn received was contested by Coach McKay at trial.

Trial Court Verdict

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of McKay and the school district. It found that, under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the defendants could not be liable unless they had elevated the risks inherent to competitive swimming or had behaved recklessly. The Court of Appeals considered whether the defendants should be liable for the plaintiff's injury because they "pushed plaintiff beyond her capabilities or because they increased her risk in some other way." The majority determined that coaches who merely challenge their students to move beyond their current level of performance have not breached a duty of care. The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the theory that shallow-water diving is a fundamental part of competitive swimming and that such diving presents a danger that is an inherent risk of the sport.

California Supreme Court Findings

The California Supreme Court, citing case law and legal precedent, observed that "[Coaches] generally do not have a duty to protect the plaintiff from the risks inherent in the sport or to eliminate risk from the sport, although they generally do have a duty not to increase the risk of harm beyond what is inherent in the sport." Further, "risks associated with learning a sport may themselves be inherent risks of the sport" and "instruction in a sport frequently entails challenging or pushing a student to attempt new or more difficult feats, and that 'liability should not be imposed simply because an instructor asked a student to take action beyond what, with hindsight, is found to have been the student's abilities."

The court also indicated that the aforementioned framework does not negate a coach's duty to provide proper instruction to students and to teach skills in progression. …