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Liability For Youth Sports Injuries

Youth sports injuries, photo of boy kicking a soccer ball

Forty-five million children play youth sports in the United States, an endeavor that involves three out of four families with school-aged children.[1] By some estimates, approximately 70% of boys and girls participate in organized sports teams.[2] With so many adolescents involved in organized sports activities, there are millions of organized youth games played every year in the U.S.—and for many of those games, the teams need an impartial referee to manage the game. However, the number of referees has been dwindling for a number of years, with some estimating that for every ten new referees, only two will continue to officiate for three or more years.[3]

Why are people so reluctant to become referees? Some of the common responses include a lack of sportsmanship amongst the players, poor parent behavior, verbal abuse from coaches and fans alike, spending significant time learning and remaining up-to-date on the rules, and low pay. And indeed, these reasons are enough to keep many people away. But I would like to suggest one additional difficulty with being a referee: the possibility of being liable for injuries occurring on the field of play. Or more specifically, that the referee can be liable for not doing enough to remove an injured player from the game.

In 2013, the Ohio legislature enacted a law (appropriately titled “Concussions and school athletics”) that requires a referee or coach to remove a player from the field of play who “exhibits signs, symptoms, or behaviors consistent with having sustained a concussion or head injury while participating in the practice or competition[.]”[4] Any such player removed from the game cannot return to play the same day. Furthermore, the player cannot participate in games or practices until after being evaluated by a proper health professional and being given clearance to play.[5]

The concussion law also states that a referee or coach is “not liable in damages in a civil action for injury, death, or loss to person or property . . . unless the act or omission constitutes willful or wanton misconduct.”[6] While it appears that, with this phrase, the legislature was intending to provide referees and coaches with immunity, the law is not so simple.

The phrase “willful or wanton misconduct” is not defined anywhere in the statute, and Ohio courts have struggled to come up with a clear definition. The general rule is that wanton misconduct is “a degree greater than negligence,” and is characterized by “the failure to exercise any care toward one to whom a duty of care is owed when the failure occurs under circumstances for which the probability of harm is great and when the probability of harm is known to the tortfeasor.”[7]

Willful misconduct is “an intentional deviation from a clear duty or from a definite rule of conduct, a deliberate purpose not to discharge some duty necessary to safety, or purposely doing wrongful acts with knowledge or appreciation of the likelihood of resulting injury.”[8] Courts have struggled with the “fine” line between wanton or willful misconduct and ordinary negligence, and have held that the issue is normally a jury question.[9] This means that for any person sued under this statute (or under common law), the question of whether that particular person met the standard of care can only be resolved after litigating the entire case—which could take a year or more and result in the person incurring substantial attorneys’ fees, even if they are ultimately found to have done nothing negligent.

This reality underscores the importance of having adequate insurance coverage. Fortunately, many referee associations already provide general liability coverage for their members, and any current or potential referees should check with their local association to ensure that they are covered by such a policy. Likewise, coaches should check with their teams or local associations to ensure that they are adequately covered by liability insurance.

What can referees and coaches do to minimize potential liability under Ohio’s concussion statute? Several things come to mind. First, referees and coaches should comply with the statute’s requirement to take a concussion education course at least once every three years. Second, referees and coaches should inspect the field of play prior to every game to ensure the safety of the players and reduce the likelihood of injury from things such as outside objects (i.e., rocks on the field) or unsafe equipment (i.e., soccer goals that are not anchored to the ground). Third, a coach or referee who observes a player exhibiting signs, symptoms, or behaviors of a potential concussion should immediately stop the game (or, for a coach, get the attention of the nearest referee immediately). This will allow the player to be evaluated as soon as possible. Even if the player, after evaluation, is determined to not have suffered a concussion, the risk of allowing a potentially concussed player to remain in the game is simply not worth it.

Finally, referees and coaches should either have a trainer on hand or have the immediate ability to communicate with a trainer if an injury occurs. Depending on the location and timing of the game, this is not always possible. However, having a plan before an injury occurs will go a long way toward maximizing the likelihood of a favorable outcome if a serious injury occurs—for players, coaches, and referees.

Written by Attorney Gerrod Bede

[1] https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2014/05/03/how-parents-are-ruining-youth-sports/vbRln8qYXkrrNFJcsuvNyM/story.html

[2] https://www.livestrong.com/article/373329-how-many-youth-participate-in-sports-in-the-u-s/

[3] http://usatodayhss.com/2017/the-incredible-shrinking-pool-of-youth-sports-officials

[4] R.C. 3313.539(D) (“Concussions and school athletics”).

[5] Id. at (E).

[6] Id. at (G).

[7] Hunter v. Columbus, 139 Ohio App. 3d 962, 969–70, 746 N.E.2d 246, 252 (10th Dist.2000).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.