footballfieldIn the last several years, sports-related concussions have dominated the news. This increased focus has forced significant rule changes in contact sports such as football and resulted in major studies on athletes’ brains. There has also been an effort to change the culture of sports which has long been ruled by toughness first. Additionally, lawsuits from the National Football League down to high school and even Pop Warner football leagues have been filed by injured players and won. In the case of youth sports in particular, the damages awarded in these cases have been huge—but so too have the seriousness of the injuries.

Undoubtedly, there is more awareness of sports-related concussions today than ever. Educational campaigns have been developed for athletes, coaches, physicians and parents of young athletes about concussion recognition and management, and more stringent protocols are in place for practice and game situations. In Colorado, the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSSA) requires all high school coaches to undergo online training regarding concussions. In addition, they have developed protocols for high school teams in dealing with injuries.

Yet despite major steps forward, there is still confusion about and, at times, disregard for safe practices. As a result, players can be exposed to additional injury and schools, coaches, volunteers and others are exposed to litigation.

High school football players are nearly twice as likely to sustain a concussion as are college players, according to a 2013 report issued by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. A recent Colorado case illustrates the challenges and potential exposure for high schools, coaches, volunteers and others involved in youth sports.

An experienced player, who passed a physical to play high school football for his junior year, suffered a concussion on the first day of full-contact practice. The team’s two experienced coaches did not witness the hit that possibly injured the player. At one point, the player told a coach he did not feel well, and the coach instructed him to grab some water and “take a knee.” At a break, his fellow players noticed him vomiting and informed the coaches. The coaches immediately conducted concussion testing. The tests were administered three times, and the player passed on each occurrence.

In the afternoon practice, the player participated in one non-contact drill before telling one of the coaches he was not feeling well, despite being fully coherent and walking. While later watching a drill, the player began to have slurred speech and asked to go home. Instead, a coach drove the player a few blocks to the local hospital for medical testing. There, the player lost consciousness and was airlifted to a major trauma hospital, where he was diagnosed with severe permanent brain damage.

In a lawsuit that followed, the player’s attorney argued that the coaches’ testing and questioning was insufficient; that the coaches failed to identify major symptoms; that the coaches should have immediately contacted the player’s parents; and that an ambulance should have been used to transport the player from the practice field for medical attention.

The verdict: more than $11.5 million to the plaintiff. In fact, the verdict could have been much higher had the coaches not told the player to “take a knee” and chided him to “tough it out” instead.

From this case, four major lessons can be learned:

  1. Education and training are critical. Symptoms must be recognized and reported; district protocols must be clear; and everyone involved in the sport must be aware of these guidelines, including all coaches and volunteers, parents, staff, students and medical professionals such as trainers and nurses.
  2. Communication must be clear. Again, this includes all parties involved and how the communication must be conducted regarding a potential injury. The concern with the new protocols is that players may need to miss playing time before being cleared to participate in games. For senior players especially in sports with only a few games, we are now seeing players and parents trying to hide or minimize concussion symptoms so the player does not get “benched.”
  3. Awareness of the risks. Parents and players need to be made very aware of the risks involved in playing contact sports by coaches and league officials not just in one team meeting but throughout the sport season. Coaches need to consistently speak with athletes and parents about the importance of recognizing injury and allowing an injury to heal, especially for young people.
  4. An immediate inquiry is essential. Should an unfortunate catastrophic injury occur, an investigation into what transpired should be conducted by an experienced, uninvolved person and risk management should be notified.
  5. Finally, helmet warning labels are not enough. While warning labels on helmets have certainly been improved, coaches still need to take proactive steps to ensure that their players understand the warnings on the helmets, equipment is properly fit, and all protective gear is not damaged or out of date.

Litigation involving concussions and youth sports is emotional and the potential damages significant. There can also be significant personal liability facing coaches as individuals. School districts and youth sports leagues should carefully consider protocols for handling youth injuries and follow them carefully.

William Kowalski is a senior litigator at Caplan and Earnest LLC. In 2006, he was elected by his peers in the trial bar to the prestigious American Board of Trial Advocates and he is a faculty member of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. He has extensive civil litigation experience representing health care facilities, school districts, and insurance companies in personal injury, constitutional, employment, contract and construction claims. For more information, call 303-443-8010 or email him at [email protected].