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Liability Insurance for High-School Athletes Endorsed in 47 States

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Detroit--State high-school athletic associations, concerned about recent multi-million-dollar jury awards to catastrophically injured athletes, have endorsed an insurance plan intended to free them from liability for interscholastic sports accidents.

Forty-seven state associations have so far adopted the insurance policy--called the Ruedlinger Plan--for the 1983-84 school year.

Spokesmen for the Ruedlinger Company of Topeka, Kan., said they could not immediately say which three state associations had not adopted the plan.

$10,000 Deductible Liability

The plan, offered nationwide for the first time this year, is a $10,000-deductible liability-insurance policy that will guarantee injured athletes--both boys and girls who participated in any scholastic sport authorized by the state athletic association--up to $5 million in expenses over a lifetime.

But players would not receive the payments unless they and their parents agree in writing that they will not sue the school district, the school, or the state athletic association for the accident.

The plan was prompted by a $6.4-million jury award last year to Chris Thompson, a Seattle School District football player who was crippled in a 1975 football accident. Mr. Thompson became a quadraplegic when he lowered his head while being tackled, permanently injuring his spinal cord.

The award, made by a King County Superior Court jury against the Seattle school district, is believed to be the largest football-injury award ever against a school district.

Both the verdict against the school district--that it was negligent in failing to warn Mr. Thompson of the danger of lowering his head--and the size of the award are on appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court.

Although it has been eight years since the accident, and more than a year since the jury award, Mr. Thompson has yet to receive any money.

The Ruedlinger Plan, according to Mark Nordstrom, the company's vice president, lets school districts "off the hook" and allows players and their families to receive financial compensation immediately.

"There was a crying out from school people across the country to keep them from being sued if there was a catastrophic injury, as well as concern about what could happen to the injured boy," Mr. Nordstrom said.

According to the University of North Carolina's physical-education department, which maintains statistics on football injuries, 53 high-school football players received permanent spinal-cord injuries between 1977 and 1983.

The university's researchers are now working on their first national survey of injuries in all high-school and college sports. That report is expected to be released this fall.

Mr. Nordstrom said families and injured players could still participate in the plan while suing football-helmet manufacturers or other parties.

Districts Automatically Covered

School districts in states in which athletic associations have adopted the plan are automatically a part of the coverage unless they decide to opt out. The plan costs the school district $1 per athlete.

Athletes who suffer injuries that require care costing more than $10,000 receive compensation for medical treatment, rehabilitation, special equipment and remodeling of the home required because of an injury, transportation, loss of income for parents due to the athlete's injuries, and counseling. The policy also would provide the injured athlete with a lifetime income or a supplement to his or her income if the injury impairs his or her ability to earn a living.

The plan, piloted last year in Washington State, so far has been used for expenses incurred by a Tacoma, Wash., high-school wrestler who suffered injuries in competition.

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