ASSOCIATE ATTORNEY, CALIFORNIA LAW PARTNERS, APC
The morning of the big swim meet against Pleasanton High School, fourteen-year-old Kelly was nervous. This was her very first year on the team, and Kelly had no experience as a competitive swimmer. She had always loved to swim; she loved to swim in her backyard pool every summer with her friends. She felt at home in the water. But today was different – the bleachers lining the pool were packed with people, all watching and waiting for a great performance from all of the kids. Judges sat waiting to score kids on their performance, and all of Kelly’s friends were there. To top it all off, Kelly had a deep-seated fear of diving into the pool head-first, but she needed to learn to do so to be a truly great competitor. But it wouldn’t be that bad – no one expected Kelly to make a dive off the deck, since she was new and inexperienced. Or, so she thought.
One of Kelly’s high school coaches beckoned “You’re up, Kelly! We need you to dive off of the deck!” Kelly looked at the coach in shock. “But I don’t know how!” Coach protested. “I’ve seen you do a few practice dives, you can do this. I believe in you, Kelly!”
The movie version of this story ends with Kelly overcoming her fears and winning the big meet. The real-life version of this story ends in tragedy with Kelly breaking her neck and becoming paralyzed for the rest of her young life.
In tragic situations like these, civil disputes and litigation are common, and everyone – students, parents, teammates, teachers, and coaches alike – simply wish it would never happen. There must have been something someone could have done, right? Are some accidents simply an inevitable part of life? Are some sports injuries simply a risk we are all willing to take – much less our kids?
In the state of California, the answers to these questions are relatively clear. In traditional sports law, one “assumes the risk” of getting an injury typical of the kind players receive in the sport. For example, players in full-contact sports like football or boxing assume a great deal of risk when it comes to injuries considered as a typical price paid for participating in the sport. Football players know they might get tackled every time they walk onto the field. Boxers know they might get knocked out every time they step into the ring.
However, on the flip side of the same coin are “light” or “no-contact” sports like Golf. Flying golf balls are expected when one is on the course; the traditional yelling of “fore!” supports this notion. Yet, unlike football or boxing, no golfer expects another player to attack her with a punch, a tackle, or an attack with a golf club. Such an attack would be outside the scope of what one expects from the game of golf. Swimmers expect to get overuse injuries from practice, but in Kelly’s case, do swimmers and their parents assume the risk that the swimmer might hit her head on a dive and become paralyzed?
Consequently, all of these examples support the general legal standard that kids and parents alike accept certain risks said to be “inherent in the sport” when one participates in the sport. Therefore, Courts have ruled for many years that coaches and schools are only on the hook to protect kids from injuries outside the scope of the sport – a golf coach needs to protect golfers from punching each other, a football coach needs to protect players from smashing each other with blunt objects during half time, etc. Coaches teach kids the rules of the game, how to follow them, and the rest is up to the kids. Safety standards exist to minimize injury risks, but California embraces the idea that overprotecting players by allowing coaches and schools to be liable for all injuries would “chill competition” in the sports and ruin the essence of such competitions. We are, after all, a society that readily embraces the idea of “healthy competition.”
However, in Kelly’s case, the answer is more complex. Sure, hitting your head on the bottom of the pool is something one might expect to do when learning how to do competition dives. But everyone also expects her coaches to teach her how to properly dive into the pool, instead of throwing her into a situation where she is likely to hurt herself. While we embrace the idea of competition, we also embrace the idea of holding accountable the coaches as gatekeepers of safety standards. As you can imagine, the Court in Kelly’s case ruled in favor of Kelly and against her coach on the basis of the coach’s failure and negligence to teach her how to dive properly before rushing her into a dangerous and high-risk maneuver in a shallow pool.
Ultimately, some may disagree with liability as a safeguard against sports injury. Yet, safety standards by their very design need coaches and schools to enforce them to be effective. After all, what good would football helmets be if coaches didn’t require their players to wear them?
Lisa serves as an Associate Attorney at California Law Partners, APC and specializes in sports & entertainment law, health law, and civil litigation. For any questions or comments, please contact us on the web at www.californialawpartners.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org and (619) 320-6065.