“Coaches at all levels have traditionally assumed a special role in the lives of athletes and success of teams. In the past, winning coaches achieved results employing techniques that could legally be considered ‘wanton’ or ‘grossly negligent’ in any other context.”

“In 2015, because of a number of social and economic factors, the explosion of baseball participation from the T-ball to the professionalsis at an all-time high. Baseball’s popularity appears to be an extension of the growth of all sports.”

“On its face, the behavior of coaches today is more scrutinized than ever, and the big legal questions that surface are: Where does society draw the line between forging a winning program and negligent behavior? Or, when does a coach’s behavior at any level of sport constitute negligence, and what standard should be applied?”

“The lynchpin of the negligence definition is that “athletes assume the inherent risks that are involved in the execution of sport skills.” Hence, a batter incurring a facial injury from a pitched ball assumed or understood the risk of injury while batting might include injuries to the face. And the voluntary nature of participation in an activity allows the institutions, organizations and coaches to not be held responsible for injuries considered part of a sport.”

“Courts have determined a coach’s duty is not to unnecessarily increase the risk of injury inherent in skill execution and must teach, drill and practically minimize the risk of injury to players under his/her supervision.”

“A Florida court decision has provided a more definitive understanding involving how liability may be imposed upon an institution, organization or coach.
Leahy v. School Board.”

“In Leahy v. School Board, the court enunciated as follows: The duty owed athletes takes the form of a giving adequate instruction in the activity, supplying proper equipment, making a reasonable selection or matching or matching of participants, providing non-negligent supervision of the particular contest (practice), and taking proper post-injury procedures to guard against aggravation of injuries.”

“Most importantly, the court further stated that: “Coaches do not have a duty to eliminate all riskinvolved in sport, but rather have a duty not to increase the risk inherent to learning, practicing, or performing the sport.” Often, institutions, organizations and coaches have been falsely led to believe they are totally immunized from all liability because of rules established by a national, regional or state organization.”

Consider the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFSHSA) sliding rule that states: “In high school baseball, a legal slide may be feet or head first.”

“According to long-time expert and advocate of child safety in athletics Dr. Michael B. Minix, the national high school sliding rule infers: “A player who slides head first won’t get penalized, ejected, suspended or any other penalty that an institution, organization or coach have the ability to impose, during and after the event (i.e. game or practice).”

“Minix’s analysis also provides a more comprehensive understanding of negligence by stating that just because the head-first slide is legal in sliding rules does not mean the slide:
1. isn’t an unreasonable risk of injury to a player and potentially criminal in civil or criminal court;
2. does not mean the duty of care owed to an athlete hasn’t been neglected; and
3. does not mean the damage or injury occurring from a head-first slide wasn’t the result of a breach in the standard of care.”

“Minix’s observations can also be understood by differentiating between administrative laws (NFSHSA’s sliding rule) and civil and criminal laws. The latter (rules of law) always supersede rules of play authored by associations, sections, leagues, etc. which are arbitrary and capricious; not made by legislative authority and suject to change.”

“Regarding the ‘unreasonable standard risk of injury’ standard, launching a head into a firmly planted leg by a catcher or an infielder in turning a double play can lead to serious injury, including full or partial body paralysis. Obviously, not teaching, practicing and executing a bent-leg slide in that situation presents an unreasonable risk of injury to which a player is not expected to assume.”

“However, to ameliorate this risk, it’s not enough to simply point out the risks of launching one’s head into a stationary object. Applying the duty of care precept implies a coaching staff has provided sufficient instruction, practice and corrective analysis in sliding head-first (i.e. returning to a base to avoid a pick or sliding at a base or home to avoid a tag) and has devoted an equal amount of time to mastering the bent-leg.”

“From a practical, safety and coaching perspective, the empirical evidence illustrates that in comparing the two slides, the head-first is likely to result in more serious upper body injuries and not demonstrated to be faster in reaching a base or home in comparison to a bent-leg. Hence, the bent-leg slide appears to be safest and most efficient to master, and the trend in all levels of baseball shows an increasing use of this slide.”

Standard of care is associated with exposure of athletes to severe punishments (i.e. verbal abuse), overuse injuries (excessive pitch counts, not correcting improper techniques) and injury mismanagement (failure to provide and document an updated risk management program). [Newman v. Obersteller]

“In cases that have been adjudicated in court, child abuse is the category in which these cases are documented and increasingly involve emotional, verbal and psychological abuse. The literature abounds with examples of coaches leading their team to a nearby pasture and pointing out “the players’ brains were similar to the grazing sheep’s,” acting self-centered and only interested in one’s coaching record, and the use of vulgar, derogatory and intimidation language.”

“A coach’s behavior — such as utilizing derogatory language, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse (i.e. bringing a team to grazing sheep and inferring its brain capacities were similar to the sheep’s) — may render a coach or coaching staff liable if a court (jury or judge) agrees that such actions rise to a level that exceed normal behavior.”

“In conclusion, the increased litigiousness in all aspects of American society coaches under the “unnecessarily increasing the inherent risk” dicta can be held liable for player injuries, including death.”

“Updated knowledge and currency in the application of technical executions, respect and reasonableness in interactions with players, and thorough knowledge of the 14 duties for athletic administrators and athletic coaches related to negligence litigation are the best preventive strategy to avoid frivolous lawsuits.”

See the complete references:
[What’s behind the increase in amateur baseball litigation? Albert Figone, August 19, 2015, Multibriefs]

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