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Injuries and Liabilities in Organizational Athletics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sports
Wordcount: 3383 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Coaches, athletic trainers and athletic directors have legal responsibilities as well as other responsibilities as it relates to keeping students safe and healthy. As learned so far in this course, there are trainings, clinics and affiliation news that keep coaches, athletic directors and trainers up to date on a variety of protocols. Questions that will be answered in research include: Are leaders of athletic organizations required to participate in trainings for safety and how is this data tracked? What consequences are in place by organizations that let coaching or athletic director credentials lapse? Is there a national license that must be acquired by a coach or Athletic Director? Are others held liable such as the principal, superintendent, etc? Is there too much pressure on the trainer and coach or is everyone involved assuming responsibility of the safety of athletes?

In looking at the number of cases and wondering the outcomes, the research will provide quantitative and qualitative data on the injuries and liabilities in organizational athletics. The data will reveal trends as it relates to injuries and who is held liable.

As part of this research, looking at leadership philosophy as a guide to how you treat injured athletes is one way to uphold integrity and trust among constituents. As athletes and scholars are taught to trust the organization, the idea of always being taken care of helps athletes and their parents as they determine how to move forward after issues have taken place.


Due to the hundreds of legal suits filed against schools, administrators and athletic personnel by injured student athletes, school personnel must understand the legal responsibilities as administrators of athletic programs. The cases of such law suits tend to assert a form of negligence to the health and well-being of the athlete. Due to cases such as the aforementioned, athletic administrators are responsible for planning, supervision, technique instruction, safe equipment, matching and equating athletics, return to action protocols, immediate medical response, emergency medical response planning, and other responsibilities for protecting athletes from injury.  This research is relevant to current and future athletic directors. In exploring the topic of injury liability, the purpose is to determine where liability falls and how liability is determined.

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Year after year, parents sign waivers and still have found ways for the athletic department or organization to be held liable for their students’ injuries. The research should bring forth the rights of students and their families and what is being said by the parent when the waiver is signed. Other topics to research include insurance coverage for the program or organization as well as the student. Parents should be able to send their student to school without having the fear of assuming liability. The research will be able to answer whether parents have a reason to fear or should they have a level of confidence that their student-athlete is protected.

Looking at the many roles and supports of athletes, the question is who is actual liable for student injuries: the organization, the administration, the athletic director, or the coaches. How is it determined whether the individual who is directly involved or the organization is liable for injuries?

High school sports is one of the most popular physical activities among youth growing from 4.0 million in 1971-1972 to 7.9 million in 2016-2017 (Comstock, n.d.). In 2015-2017 the rate of sports related injuries among children and adolescents aged 1-17 years was 82.9 percent per 1,000 population. The rate of sports, recreation, and leisure injuries increased with age from 48.4 for those aged 1–4 years, to 72.7 for those aged 5–11 years, and to 117.1 for those aged 12–17 years (CDC, 2019). More than 2.6 million children ages 0-19 years old is treated in the emergency room for sports and recreation-related injuries (CDC, 2019). With the large number of participants, the number of sport related injuries is substantial across the United States. Studies have shown that although there is an expectation to prevent injuries, they still occur whether due to negligence or other unforeseen circumstances.

The table below shows the estimated number of injuries by sport and type of exposure from the 2005- 2006 school year to the 2016 – 2017 school year.

Review of Literature

According to research, many entities including the courts consider sports-related injuries to be preventable. This is said to be true based on the application of evidence based preventive interventions. This includes educational campaigns, new and improved protective equipment, rule changes, and other policy changes. Research also states that mortality and disability rates can be reduced through improved injury diagnosis, treatments and effective prevention strategies. However, surveillance of exposure based injury rates in a nationally representative sample of high school athletes and subsequent epidemiologic analysis of patterns of injury are needed to drive evidence-based prevention practices (Comstock, 2019). Comstock’s research supports prevention of injuries through preventive measures that organizations and coaches should develop and implement, which would more than likely hold them liable or consider them negligent in most cases. 

The most frequent basis for suits brought against the coach by athletes is negligence. The claim is that the coach is liable for injuries sustained during practice. An athlete must be able to prove that the coach’s action was careless in order for it to be negligent. Negligence may be defined as the failure to exercise the degree of care demanded by the particular circumstances at the time of the charged act or omission (Speiser, 1985).

In cases of negligence, a cause of action from which liability will follow requires: A legally-recognized duty of care on the part of the coach; A breach of this duty by the coach;  Resulting injuries or damages to the athlete; and A causal connection between the breach of the duty and the resulting injury; causation in fact, proximate cause (Keeton et al., 1984; Whang, 1995).

In looking at a case of negligence four things must occur; duty, breach, causation and harm. For example, if a student breaks an ankle on the soccer field due to a hole in the field that the school owns. The coach and the school have a duty to maintain a safe playing environment, which would be considered breached by not filling the hole. The harm was the broken ankle while the cause was the stepping in the hole. The jury decides if all elements were met. If all four are met, the plaintiff wins, if not the defendant wins (Doleschal, 2006).

A student from St. Xavier High School sued the school district for negligence when the student suffered a heat stroke during practice while they were under heat advisory. The lawsuit says the school “failed to adequately supervise, screen, test, monitor, and treat the student runners for heat-related injuries and illness” and “was negligent in hiring, training, educating, and supervising its coaches and coaching staff’ (Estes, 2018). The school was considered negligent based on the behavior of the coaches.

Legal duties of the coach are usually well defined by state athletic associations, departments of education, and related government organizations, and gain an opinion of importance in coaching certification programs. These rules are defined in the concern of the safety and well-being of the athletes. Also, court decisions or other legal actions may regulate other duties for coaches. Studies by Abraham (1970), Porter (1980), Schwarz (1996) and Doleschal (2006) have shown legal duties of coaches which all include proper supervision, provide proper equipment, and provide proper first aid or emergency care. The most recent list by Doleschal contains fourteen legal duties that a coach must abide by to prevent the consideration of negligence.

There are fourteen legal duties of care used to determine negligence that have been formulated from legal proceedings taken from tort related cases involving coaches, schools, and athletic programs (Doleschal, 2006). These duties are based on the tort cases filed within the courts. A tort is committed when we fail to act as an ordinary and reasonably prudent person under similar circumstances and cause injury to another person (Quandt, et. al, 2009). Although impossible to prevent all incidents, organizations must take preventive measures to minimize situations that could cause liability for coaches and the school. In order for an organization to minimize legal battles there are precautions and preventive measures that should be in place.

Mohamadinejad and Mirsafian (2014) also classified the coaches’ legal duties in another way. They arranged the duties in seven major categories, which cover coaches’ duties in different types of sports and at various levels of recreational and competitive sport activities. Their classification is as follows:

A)    Supervision of locker rooms, practice, transportation and nutrition at all times.

B)    Instruction and Training of skills, techniques and rules

C)    Facilities and Equipment maintenance

D)    Warning athletes of Risk

E)     Guaranteeing appropriate first aid and medical care

F)     Knowledge of Players’ bodily state and being aware of the athletes’ backgrounds

G)    Matching Players with other athletes of similar age, size, mental and physical maturity, experience, and skill level

Coaches tend to find themselves at the helm of many of the liability cases due to the close relationships and the responsibilities of supervision and safety. Coaches are often blamed for the incidents that occur on the playing field (Mersafian, 2016). Although they are criticized for incidents, they do not hold an automatic legal liability (Mersafin, 2016). According to Mersafian (2016), the source of civil liability is based on the theory of negligence.

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In order to decide if a cause of action is created for a coach’s liability, a court must first determine, as a matter of law, whether a duty runs from the coach to the athlete (Stirling et al., 2011). A duty of care depends on some sort of connection between the parties. If an injury/ accident happens, the legal authority will question about the relationship between the parties, and whether it was such that the coach should have predicted that his act would lead to an injury suffered by the athlete. Based on a basic principle of tort law, if special circumstances between the plaintiff and defendant are absent, no duty arises.

Thus, under the general principals of tort law, the coach has no duty to aid or protect his athletes unless the relationship between them is characterized as “special” (Whang, 1995). After that, a court must determine if the coach breaches the duty of care. A coach’s responsibility is to provide practical care to his athletes, matching another confident and careful coach providing in similar circumstances.

The athletic department should have a well-thought out plan developed with support from legal counsel. The plan should include parent consent forms and other pertinent documents for the organization .nd those involved to follow.

The duty to plan is a comprehensive duty encompassing steps that should be taken by the school district, the principal, the athletic administrator, the head coaches, the assistant coaches, the athletic trainer, the equipment manager, and any other supervisory personnel connected with the athletic program (Doleschal, 2006).

In the case of Keesee vs. Board of Education, a student was injured in a game of line soccer. The instructor deviated from his lesson plan by having eight students running for the ball instead of two. The teacher was considered negligent because he deviated from the plan so much.

Rules and regulations of how the athletic program will be conducted must be established by school district and communicated with all constituents. This means that a Parent-Athlete Handbook must be written for parents, athletes, and coaches.

The documents using during planning should include statements that minimize the liability of the organizations, for example:

I certify that I have read, understand, and agree to abide by all of the information contained in the Parent-Athlete Handbook. I further certify that if I have not understood any information contained in this handbook, I have sought and received an explanation of the information prior to signing this statement (Doleschal, 2006).

An organization should have bylaws that they follow to keep themselves out of legal trouble with processes, procedures and systems in place to guide staff, athletes and families. As an organization, written systems processes and procedures give the organization and key stakeholders an idea of how things are done. When presented in court, this document serves as a support for the organization and gives them credit for a solid foundation.

The duty of supervision is another one of the 14 legal duties of organizations sponsoring athletics. Locker rooms and practice areas must be supervised by coaches before, during and after games and any time that they are serving in an official capacity representing the school.

 Foster v. Houston General Insurance’1 is an example of when a school breached its duty to supervise.  In Foster, a student who was a member of the school’s Special Olympics Basketball Team was killed when he darted in front of a car on his way to the off-campus gymnasium.’ Two teachers were supposed to be escorting the ten cognitively delayed students; however, only one teacher actually did so. The court held that it was the teacher’s duty to have an adequate number of supervisors accompanying the team. The supervisors had the duty to maintain close supervision over the students at all times, especially when they were in the vicinity of traffic. The teachers also had a duty to choose the safest route for the athletes (Doleschal, 2006).

Athletic administrators should clearly communicate the expectation for all athletes to be supervised at all times. This includes on buses, during games, locker rooms, etc. The athletic administrator should monitor coaches and their staff in an effort to insure proper supervision. The athletic director should use field time to analyze procedures and processes to make the necessary adjustments since the number one concern is athlete safety.

Training is a critical component to keep any company out of legal trouble. The leaders should be trained on sexual harassment, athlete safety, and CPR. The professional development that athletic administrators take part in should focus on the legal aspect as well as the content. Athletes should be trained as well on safety topics should as CPR, self-care, and sexual harassment. This communication will serve as part of the plan developed by the organization.

There should be an attorney on retainer for legal advice and to assist with drawing up documents. The attorney is able to provide wording for documents, consult and offer advice. Having an attorney helps the organization handle a variety of concerns before anything becomes a lawsuit.

An athletic trainer on staff will help maintain athlete safety and allow for on the spot injury maintenance. Trainers are able to keep track of athletes and will know details about their safety plan and health.

Manager for Equipment who checks equipment as it comes in and as it is issued to players. The practice uniforms and playing uniforms need to be looked at to insure the safety of each player.

As part of the coaching duties, making it a point to implement safe processes, warm up, proper hydration and insure safe playing conditions. Coaches should be required to attend safety workshops and trainings to help reduce the potential for injury (Mac, n.d.)

Require athletes to show proof of insurance before participating in any activities. The proof of insurance is a guarantee that the athlete has some type of coverage. Athletes should not be permitted to play without insurance as a safety measure for the team and the athletes.

Insure safe transportation by bonded and insured agencies only. Athletic directors should make sure that those being transported are on an up to date mode of transportation and that the company has safe drivers.


  • Doleschal, J.K. (2006). Managing Risks in Interscholastic Programs: 14 Legal Duties of Care.Marquette Sports Law Review 17 (1).
  • Estes, G. (2018). Lawsuit: School negligent in cross country runner’s heat stroke. USA Today High School Journal.


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