Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Break in the Action

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Break in the Action

Article excerpt

A Break in the Action Generally, sport coaches and instructors owe a legal duty to exercise ordinary reasonable care to protect participants from unassumed, concealed or unreasonably increased risks. Participants, on the other hand, assume the risk of injury associated with the obvious, unavoidable and inherent risks in any physical activity. When an activity involves coaching or instruction, the participant also assumes the risk of injury associated with challenging instruction.

Accordingly, a coach or instructor who asks a participant to take on a challenge to better her skills won't necessarily be liable for injuries resulting from the participant's failure to meet that challenge. On the contrary, unless there's evidence of intentional misconduct, recklessness or other egregious risk-increasing conduct on the part of the coach or instructor, the participant assumes the risk of injury resulting from reasonable challenges which, in hindsight, prove to have been beyond the participant's abilities. However, in the case described below, the court found evidence that the coach's use of physical force to demonstrate a technique unreasonably increased the risk of injury to the participant.

Sport Risk?

In the case of Koffman v. Garnett, 574 S.E.2d 258 (Va. 2003), the Virginia Supreme Court considered whether an injured football player had alleged sufficient facts to establish a claim of gross negligence, as well as assault and battery, against his coach. The facts of the case were as follows:

In the fall of 2000, Andrew W. Koffman, a 13-year-old middle school student at a public school in Botetourt County, began participating on the school's football team. It was Andy's first season playing organized football, and he was positioned as a third-string defensive player. James Garnett was employed by the Botetourt County School Board as an assistant coach for the football team and was responsible for the supervision, training and instruction of the team's defensive players.

The team lost its first game of the season. Garnett was upset by the defensive players' inadequate tackling in that game and became further displeased by what he perceived as inadequate tackling during the first practice following the loss.

Garnett ordered Andy to hold a football and "stand upright and motionless" so that Garnett could explain the proper tackling technique to the defensive players. Then Garnett, without further warning, thrust his arms around Andy's body, lifted him "off his feet by two feet or more," and "slammed" him to the ground. Andy weighed 144 pounds, while Garnett weighed approximately 260 pounds. The force of the tackle broke the humerus bone in Andy's left arm. During prior practices, no coach had used physical force to instruct players on rules or techniques to playing football.

Koffman and his parents alleged that "Andy was injured as a result of Garnett's simple and gross negligence and intentional acts of assault and battery." In response, Garnett argued that the Koffmans had not alleged "sufficient facts to support a lack of consent to the tackling demonstration and, therefore, did not plead causes of action for either gross negligence, assault or battery."

The trial court agreed with Garnett and dismissed the case. In so doing, the trial court held that, under state law, "Garnett, as a school board employee, was entitled to sovereign immunity for acts of simple negligence." Further, the trial court found the facts alleged by the Koffmans were "insufficient to state causes of action for gross negligence, assault or battery because the instruction and playing of football are 'inherently dangerous and always potentially violent."' The Koffmans appealed to the state supreme court.

Gross Negligence?

As defined by the state supreme court, "gross negligence" involves "that degree of negligence which shows indifference to others as constitutes an utter disregard of prudence amounting to a complete of the safety of another. …

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