Coach Dodges Liability Over Football Player’s Brain Injury

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By Steven M. Sellers

A Pennsylvania high school football head coach is immune from liability for a player’s on-field brain injury, a federal appeals court ruled Sept. 21( Mann v. Palmerton Area School Dist. , 3d Cir., No. 16-2821, 9/21/17 ).

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the dismissal of civil rights claims against coach Chris Walkowiak over brain injury claims brought by the parents of Sheldon Mann, who suffered a brain injury when he was returned to a November 2011 practice after showing signs of a concussion.

The decision—the latest in litigation against school districts over the management of head injuries in football and other contact sports—could change the calculus of liability for coaching decisions depending on the year those decisions were made.

There was sufficient evidence Walkowiak was culpable for Mann’s injury under a state-created danger theory of liability. But the constitutional right in question—"to be free from deliberate exposure to a traumatic brain injury after exhibiting signs of a concussion in the context of a violent contact sport"—wasn’t clearly established in 2011, the unanimous court said.

A jury could find that the injury was foreseeable, that Walkowiak showed “deliberate indifference” to the risk posed when he sent Mann back into the practice in Palmerton, Pa., and that the coach “took an affirmative act” that made Mann more vulnerable to danger, the court said.

But Walkowiak, an official of a public school school, was entitled to qualified immunity from liability because it must be “sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he was doing violates that right,” the three-judge panel said.

Here, it wasn’t “plainly obvious” in 2011 that requiring a student-athlete in full protective gear to return to a practice after showing signs of a concussion implicated the player’s constitutional rights, the court said.

“We are aware of no appellate case decided prior to November 2011 that held a coach violates the student’s constitutional rights by requiring the student to play in these circumstances,” the Third Circuit said.

Similar claims against the school district were also dismissed for lack of evidence of a pattern of recurring head injuries in the school’s football program.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Thomas I. Vanaskie wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Theodore A. McKee and Marjorie O. Rendell.

The law offices of Howard J. Bashman, as well as Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky represented the Manns.

Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin represented Walkowiak and Palmerton.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steven M. Sellers in Washington at ssellers@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

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