Injured Athlete’s Case Raises New Concerns About Liability

By Charlie Euchner — May 04, 1983 5 min read
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A District of Columbia jury’s award of $1.5 million to a partially paralyzed former high-school football player has increased anxiety about the liability of school officials for injuries sustained in interscholastic sports.

Last month’s decision of the District of Columbia Superior Court in favor of Carl R. Greene, who was injured while playing for Anacostia High School in 1974, will probably impel many coaches to obtain insurance policies that they have previously considered unnecessary, experts said.

Mr. Greene charged that his coach was negligent in using him in practices and competition after he was injured in a practice.

Mr. Greene’s lawyer, John W. Karr, said that coaches would not need any extra insurance protection if they would follow a “flat rule” of forbidding injured athletes to play until they received written clearance from a doctor.

The jury’s award in the case is one of the largest in cases involving injuries of elementary- and secondary-school athletes, officials said.

(The Seattle School District last year was ordered by a jury to pay the largest high-school injury award, $6.3 million, to a former football player who was paralyzed during a 1975 game.)

Although there are no national figures on the number of such lawsuits pending, Thomas Ecker, the athletic director for the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, public schools, who has studied the issue, has found indications that the issue of liability for sports injuries is being raised with increasing frequency. “I know of one manufacturer that receives one multimillion-dollar suit each week,” he said.

Mr. Ecker said most lawsuits have been directed at manufacturers of athletic equipment, but he added that school districts would probably soon be more frequent targets. “The plaintiffs’ attorneys going after money are finding that the well is going dry,” he said.

Need for Medical Attention

Mr. Greene, now an accountant in Washington, testified that his former coach, Wymann Colona, was negligent in using him in a game two weeks after he was injured during a team practice. Mr. Greene paralyzed his left arm while making what Mr. Karr said was a “routine tackle.”

Mr. Greene sat out two days of practice after the original injury, Mr. Karr said, and was unable to do pushups during that time because of the injury. The coach did not send the player to a doctor at any time, according to court testimony.

After that two-day rest, Mr. Karr said, Mr. Greene took part in all practices and two games, including the game in which he was permanently injured.

The 1974 football handbook issued by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the umbrella group that issues rules for interscholastic sports, states that “no [injured] athlete should be permitted to return to practice or competition until authorized by a physician.”

“This [legal issue] is not trendy, and it is not new,” said Mr. Karr. “The teachers at a high school have to take responsibility for a kid.

“What came out of this is that there’s no system. If the kid says [he is physically able to play], you don’t trust the kid. You ship him off to a doctor. If you have any doubt, you resolve that doubt in favor of the injury.”

Mr. Greene had asked for $1 million as compensation for lost opportunities for a college scholarship and a professional football career and for his mental suffering. The judge ordered the jury to consider only his physical and mental suffering.

The former athlete testified that he had complained of “burning and tingling” in his shoulder prior to the game, but Mr. Colona said that he had reported only a bruise.

Mr. Greene also testified that the original injury occurred during a tackling drill at a nighttime practice, and that the injured shoulder was padded before games. Mr. Colona denied holding practice in the dark and running tackling drills, and he said that padding was used to protect what he thought was a bruise on the other shoulder.

Medical experts for the two sides differed about whether the nerves in Mr. Greene’s arm could have been severed during the game if there had not been a previous injury.

Liability ‘Sliding to Coaches’

Dennis McFall, staff legal counsel for the National Organization for Legal Problems in Education, said that he has “no doubt that there is a lot more litigation in this area in recent years,” and that more coaches have bought insurance policies to protect themselves.

Carey E. McDonald, executive director of the National High School Coaches Association, said school districts once were completely liable for sports injuries but that the liability was “now sliding to the coaches.”

The Greene decision, he said, “makes it mandatory now that a coach must be protected.”

Added Herbert Appenzeller, athletic director at Guilford College and publisher of a quarterly newsletter entitled Sports and the Courts: "[The Greene decision] is scary, and it puts every coach on notice that they’re vulnerable. I’d say [insurance is] almost mandatory.”

Mr. McDonald said the best approach to the problem is to educate coaches about their responsibility when medical issues arise on the field. He said that there is a “tremendous range” of seminars and training sessions available, but that they are often prohibitively expensive.

But Richard D. Schindler, assistant director of the national interscholastic-sports federation, said the unique circumstances surrounding injuries make it impossible for coaches to know what to do in all cases.

“You’re always going to be open to lawsuits,” he said. “There will always be cases where there’s a question. If there’s an injury, what’s an injury? Anything you go to the doctor for? Any time you put a piece of tape on the hand?”

Insurance Plans Initiated

The Ruedlinger Company, a national insurance firm that offers policies to the National Junior College Athletic Association and the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics, this year started to sell insurance programs to high schools through the national federation.

An official with the company said that eight state associations of the national federation have already agreed to purchase the policies for all of their member schools and that another 35 or 36 state associations would give member schools the option of buying policies.

Injured athletes would be eligible to receive “unlimited” benefits after the initial $10,000 in medical expenses, said Katherine Oliphant, a special-accounts administrator for Ruedlinger.

In return for a pledge not to sue the school district or any school official involved in the accident, Ms. Oliphant said, the policy would pay the costs of medical treatment, rehabilitation, income loss due to the injury, counseling, any special equipment required because of the injury, and up to $1,000 in legal fees.

The company would also 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.

A version of this article appeared in the May 04, 1983 edition of Education Week as Injured Athlete’s Case Raises New Concerns About Liability


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