A federal court has ruled that a coach violated a high school football player’s constitutional rights by failing to remove the student from practice after he showed signs of a having sustained a concussion.
The case concerned a senior football player who sustained a traumatic brain injury after receiving two hard hits during football practice. After the first hit, the player told his coach he was “fine.” But other players later testified that the student showed signs of a concussion after that first hit, and the coaching staff did not remove him from practice or have him seen by a trainer until after the second hit.
The family filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that the coach violated the student’s constitutional rights by not removing him from practice after he demonstrated signs of a concussion following the initial hit.
Like other public officials, school employees are entitled to “qualified immunity” against these types of constitutional claims, if they can show that their conduct did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. In other words, even if the school employee violated a student’s constitutional rights, the school employee will be immune from suit if the constitutional right that they violated was not “clearly established” at the time of the injury.
The court agreed that the coach violated the student’s constitutional rights by not removing him from practice after he exhibited signs of concussion. Specifically, the court ruled:
[W]e hold that there exists a relationship between a student-athlete and coach at a state-sponsored school such that the coach may be held liable where the coach requires a player, showing signs of a concussion, to continue to be exposed to violent hits. Stated otherwise, we hold that an injured student-athlete participating in a contact sport has a constitutional right to be protected from further harm, and that a state actor violates this right when the injured student-athlete is required to be exposed to a risk of harm by continuing to practice or compete.
But the court then found that this was not a clearly established right at the time of the student’s injury. The court reviewed other cases where students had been injured during athletic practice or competition, and none of the prior cases were similar enough to this case to show that the right was “clearly established.” So, the court ruled that the coach was entitled to qualified immunity and dismissed the case.
So why is this bad news for other schools? Courts determine whether or not a right is “clearly established” by looking for other cases where similar conduct is at issue. If a court can identify past cases that rule that certain conduct is unconstitutional, then the court will generally find that right to be clearly established, which defeats qualified immunity. And so now, the next time a school or coach is sued in federal court for failing to remove an injured athlete from practice or competition, this case will be used as proof that the athlete’s right to be removed was “clearly established” at the time of the injury.
This new development underscores the importance of providing concussion training for students and coaches, and implementing and enforcing concussion protocols to ensure that potentially injured students are removed from harm and evaluated promptly.
The case referenced in this blog post is Mann v. Palmerton Area School District, 872 F.3d 165 (3rd Cir. 2017).
Post by Mark White, APSRC Legal Director