On September 21, 2017, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided a sad controversy involving a high school football player sent back into a practice game after suffering a severe hit to the torso and a possible concussion.
The student then experienced a second hit, resulting in a subsequent diagnosis of traumatic brain injury. The appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision that neither the coach nor the school district was liable for the player’s 2011 injury, but in doing so, established precedent for the future.
The student, Sheldon Mann, was a student at Palmerton Senior High School. His football coach, Christopher Walkowiak, testified that he did not observe the first hit, but saw Sheldon “rolling” his shoulder and took him out of the game.
The coach asked Sheldon if he was all right. Sheldon said he was “fine,” and the coach sent him back into the game.
Walkowiak later acknowledged that the first hit that Sheldon had experienced may have caused a shoulder “stinger,” an injury in which a spinal nerve is compressed as the head and torso snap in opposite directions, producing a concussion.
After the diagnosis of traumatic brain injury (TBI), Sheldon’s parents sued the coach and the Palmerton Area School District. The parents alleged that the coach and the district were liable for a state-created danger, that by returning their son to the game after the first hit they had violated Sheldon’s Fourteenth Amendment right to bodily integrity. They also alleged that the district was liable for failing to train the coach to recognize the symptoms of concussion.
At the time of the practice game in 2011, the school district had in place a series of policies and procedures dealing with players’ injuries during contact sports. An injured player was to be removed from play and sent to the trainer, and not readmitted to participate in the sport until cleared by a physician. Coach Walkowiak had received training in concussion and safety at DeSales University after he became head football coach in 2011.
The appellate court looked to the four elements recognized in Third Circuit precedents to constitute a state-created danger: (1) the harm suffered was foreseeable and direct, (2) a state actor acted in a way that “shocks the conscience,” (3) the injured party was a foreseeable victim of the state actor, and (4) the state actor used his authority to render the injured party more vulnerable to danger than if the state actor had not acted at all. Employees of public school districts, like the coach, are legally considered to be “state actors.”
The court examined each factor and concluded that, indeed, a jury could find that Sheldon’s injury was a direct and foreseeable result of the coach’s actions.
The jury could also conclude, stated the court, that the coach was deliberately indifferent to the risk of Sheldon’s second injury, and used his authority to make Sheldon more vulnerable to his ultimate injury. In other words, the court found that a jury could conclude that the coach was liable for Sheldon’s TBI.
However, the court then looked to precedents in the Third Circuit to see if a student-athlete’s right to bodily integrity was clearly established in 2011. The court found no precedential ruling in the Third or in any Circuit or the Supreme Court, prior to 2011, where a student-athlete who suffered an injury told the coach he was fine to return to play, and subsequently experienced a second injury. Therefore, the appellate court ruled that no legal precedent had existed in 2011 to put Coach Walkowiak on notice that his conduct was constitutionally prohibited. As a result, the court granted qualified immunity to the coach, releasing him from liability.
The court then examined the parents’ allegations against the school district. The parents argued that Palmerton had failed to adequately train its coaches to recognize and protect against concussions, and that their handbook for coaches failed to specifically mention concussion protocols. However, the court noted that the parents had presented no evidence of a pattern of recurring head injuries in the football program, and therefore, no deliberate indifference to such on the part of the district. The court also noted that the Pennsylvania General Assembly did not mandate concussion prevention training until a week after Sheldon’s injury, and the legislation did not go into effect until July 2012. No policy or custom of the district was responsible for Sheldon’s injuries, the court ruled. Therefore, the district was not liable.
Bottom Line for Schools
Although the outcome for Sheldon Mann and his parents was sad indeed, all courts are obligated to follow applicable precedents. The Mann v. Palmerton Area School District decision is now binding legal precedent in the Third Circuit. Coach Walkowiak was granted qualified immunity because no precedent existed in 2011 that would have put him on notice that he had violated Sheldon Mann’s right to bodily integrity by putting Sheldon back into the practice game. The Mann decision officially establishes that right.
This decision also establishes that coaches should not take the word of a student athlete that he or she is “fine” after an injury. They should not even ask if injured students are all right. Coaches should remove a student injured in any school sport from the field, and seek treatment.
According to Pennsylvania’s Safety in Youth Sports Act, referenced in the Mann decision as 24 Pa. Cons. Statute §§ 5321-5323, the State Department of Health must make information and resources about concussion and TBI available to students and parents. Coaches must complete concussion management certification training annually. Under the Act, coaches shall remove any student athlete who exhibits signs or symptoms of concussion or TBI in a school sponsored athletic activity from participation in the activity. Students shall not be returned to participation until cleared in writing by an appropriate medical professional. Penalties are provided for coaches who violate the Act’s provisions, including a permanent bar from coaching any school sporting activity for repeated violations.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. They are meant to be informational and do not constitute legal advice. John E. Freund, III, is our editor.