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Investigations of Alleged Student-Athlete Abuse by Coaches, Part III: Legal Standard for Student-Athlete Injuries [Higher-Ed/College Athletics Best Practices Alert (Fourth Quarter 2013)]

Author: Michael L. Buckner, Esquire (Shareholder)

The findings and allegations of student-athlete abuse by coaches at Rutgers University and other universities serve as a reminder for colleges and universities on the value of conducting prompt, comprehensive and legally sufficient internal investigations. Institutions should use internal investigations to collect the relevant facts pertaining to an allegation in an objective manner. A well-run internal investigation permits an institution's decision maker to make a reliable and legally-defensible finding as to what occurred, as well as to develop sound policy and procedural recommendations to improve campus operations. However, institutions conducting an internal investigation should exercise care to avoid the common mistakes that can disrupt an inquiry and increase the organization's legal liability. Buckner, which has been retained by universities to conduct internal investigations of alleged abuse and misconduct by employees, offers a three-part series that outlines select areas and issues to avoid when conducting an internal investigation. The third, and final, entry in this series will summarize the legal standard for universities and coaches relating to student-athlete injuries and abuse during athletically-related activities (e.g., improper practice drills).

Student-athletes’ injuries during athletically-related activities can raise legal issues concerning negligent conduct by coaches, athletics staff, contracted medical professionals and institutions. The law imposes a specific standard of care that college coaches owe student-athletes—the standard mandates that coaches avoid unreasonably exposing student-athletes to injury. Federal and state courts apply principles of negligence in determining liability when a coach’s conduct fails to meet the legal standard designed to protect against unreasonable risks. Courts will use the appropriate conduct of a “reasonable person” under the same or similar circumstances as the legal standard. However, courts have broadened this standard if a special relationship exists between the parties at the time of the injury—which occurs in the intercollegiate athletics context.

Federal and state courts will conclude the actions of a university employee were negligent when the following elements exist: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct on the part of the defendant falling below the applicable standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) a breach of the duty of care substantially causing the injury; and (4) actual damages or injury resulting from the breach. Further, some courts will assess the proximate causation of an injury using a three-pronged-test: (1) the defendant’s conduct must have been a substantial factor in bringing about the harm being complained of; (2) there is no rule or policy that should relieve the wrongdoer from liability because of the manner in which the negligence resulted in harm; and (3) the harm giving rise to the action could have reasonably been foreseen or anticipated by a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence.

Courts in many states opine coaches of sports teams possess a special heightened duty to minimize the risk of injury to all participants, especially those under their control. Generally, coaches have a duty to warn student-athletes against all known dangers or hazards that should be discovered through the exercise of reasonable care. As a result of this duty, coaches are required to supervise their student-athletes proportionately to the amount of danger inherent in the activity. Further, since courts deem coaches to be in the best position to avoid harm, coaches are required to perform their specific duties without creating additional risks to student-athletes. Finally, courts do not require coaches to ensure the safety of student-athletes, but note the heightened duty of care mandates that coaches exercise the proper care and must conduct their teams accordingly. The existence or non-existence of a duty owed to student-athletes by college coaches will be entirely a question of law for the court. Therefore, if a court determines a duty exists, then it may proceed to determine whether the defendant's actions or failure to act breached this duty and whether these actions or inactions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury.

A comprehensive internal investigation of alleged abuse by a coach that cause or contributed to a student-athlete’s injuries can provide an institution with advice on: its liability under the applicable legal standard; the most effective strategy to address the student-athlete’s allegations and claims; and self-corrective measures.

Note: Citations to court cases have been ommitted in this article. Feel free to email us (info@bucknersportslaw.com) for case citations.

Contact Michael L. Buckner (954-941-1844; mbuckner@bucknersportslaw.com) for additional information and recommendations relating to conducting internal investigations of student-athlete abuse by coaches.