Are Schools Legally Responsible for Your Child's Sports Injuries?
Parents love watching their child compete in a school sports uniform, but when their baby goes down with an injury on the playing field, pride can turn to panic and even anger at the coach or school. Are schools ever legally responsible for a student’s injuries playing sports?
Q: Our child was injured while playing soccer at school and we’ve got huge medical bills. Can we sue the school?
A: Parents sometimes bring legal actions against their child’s school, alleging that the school is engaging in negligence, recklessness or intentional wrongdoing by pushing children to compete too hard, failing to remove some dangerous condition present at the athletic facility, or allowing a dangerous player to participate in a school sports program. Recklessness and intentional wrongdoing by a school are difficult to prove and rarely exist in the context of school sports programs. Parents who decide to bring suit against a school frequently allege negligence, but the Ohio Legislature and the Supreme Court of Ohio have immunized individuals and entities involved with sports and similar recreational activities from liability for negligence. The Ohio law that governs immunity of a "political subdivision" such as a school district (including exceptions to that immunity) can be found in the Ohio Revised Code (Section 2744.02).
Q: What are some examples of how the law affects injured athletes?
A: Ohio courts have held that "inherent risks" are the kind of risk you would expect out of a certain recreational activity and are not grounds for a lawsuit. For example, in football, the risk that being tackled will produce an injury is inherent to football. Generally, damages suffered due to ordinary negligence in football—such as a tackle made after the whistle was blown that injured another player—will not be recovered in a lawsuit. Similarly, a basketball player with a weak heart or lungs who collapses on the basketball court when his coach directs the team to run sprints cannot recover against the coach or the school running the sports program unless they knowingly placed hiim in harm's way. Finally, a baseball player who is struck by a foul ball in the dugout will probably be unsuccessful if he claims that the school should have equipped the facilities with a safeguard against this injury, since being hit by a foul ball in the dugout is a risk inherent to the sport of baseball.
Q: Why do inherent risks exempt schools from liability?
A: The law assumes that an individual participating in any particular sport is aware of the risks inherent to that sport. By participating in the sport, the student is showing that he or she understands and has assumed all of the risks inherent to that sport and the potential for injury. An Ohio statute enforcing this principle is called the "recreational user statute" (Ohio Revised Code Section 1533.181). If a parent is concerned about a child's safety in a particular sport, one resource to consult is the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA) Rules, which specifies safety measures that should be taken for different sports.
Q: Does this mean there’s no real point in suing a school for a sports-related injury?
A: Schools are not exempt from all risks sustained by student-athletes. Some injuries while playing sports are caused by risks that are not inherent to that sport. For example, if a school has been put on notice about a dangerous stone on the football field and a player later injures himself on that stone, then the school could be held liable for his injuries because they failed to remove a dangerous condition that should not be present on a football field. Similarly, if a school fails to repair a leak in the ceiling of the gymnasium, and this causes a basketball player to slip and fall during practice or a game, the school could be held liable for the player’s damages because slipping on water on a basketball court is not a risk inherent to basketball. Essentially, participants can assume risks inherent to the sport simply by participating, but they do not assume risks that are not inherent to the sport. A possible exception is when the inherent risk is unreasonably increased by the negligence of school employees or coaches. For instance, in a 2014 case, a girl on a high school track team was allowed to bring a lawsuit against her Ohio school district when she was struck in the head and face by a discus thrown by a fellow student. The injured girl was standing in what she had been told was a "safe zone" on the field. The court held that she could sue because there was a defect in the school's property and school employees had wrongly told her it was safe to stand there.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was originally prepared by Gury Grewal, a summer associate in the law office of McCormick Barstow LLP, and Tim Puin, currently of Janik LLP in Cleveland. It was updated by Tim Puin.