A Los Angeles judge last week ruled that a teenage football player may proceed to trial against the national Pop Warner organization, four years after he suffered an on-field injury that left him a quadriplegic.
The teen, Donnovan Hill, alleges that his coaches taught and instructed him to use “a negligent tackling technique” that resulted in his paralysis back in 2011, when he was 13 years old. His coaches allegedly taught him a head-first tackling technique, “insisted he use it despite his complaints, and refused to intervene and correct Donnovan when he repeatedly employed the tackling technique in practices and games,” according to the lawsuit.
While Pop Warner sought to have the suit dismissed because Hill’s mother, Crystal Dixon, signed a pre-participation waiver that warned of the risk of injury, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Frederick Shaller decided that such a waiver “does not cover gross negligence,” according to ESPN.com’s Tom Farrey. Accordingly, he decided the lawsuit was fit to proceed to trial, which will begin May 11.
“I think there is a triable issue of whether there was gross negligence,” Shaller wrote in his decision, per the Press-Telegram. One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Leonard Aragon, called the ruling “dead-on” while speaking to the paper.
Because the national Pop Warner organization claims to provide training for all coaches to improve safety for its participants, the judge allowed the suit to proceed not only against Hill’s former coaches but against Pop Warner as a whole. According to Farrey, Hill’s former head coach, Sal Hernandez, admitted in a deposition that he never completed the required online modules.
The judge’s decision to hold a national organization accountable for a local misstep could have a significant effect if the plaintiff wins, according to experts.
“It should have the effect of encouraging more coaches to get trained,” said Doug Abrams, a University of Missouri law professor, to Farrey. “We don’t live in the 1970s anymore, particularly in a sport like football where you have concussions. Cases like this are going to make governing bodies more attuned to promoting certification classes and refresher courses and providing greater oversight than what Pop Warner showed here. Sometimes it takes something like this to wake people up.”
When the lawsuit was filed in March 2014, attorney Rob Carey alluded to that being one of his side’s primary goals.
“We plan to introduce evidence that the coaches of this team directly, emphatically, and repeatedly ordered their players to face-tackle, knowing that it was in violation of Pop Warner guidelines and was a hazardous technique,” Carey said. “We suspect that this practice may be more widespread, and hope that this case will put a quick end to the practice.”
Abrams told Farrey that Shaller’s ruling will encourage Pop Warner to settle the suit before it goes to trial.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.