In Hites, et al. v. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, Inc., the three plaintiffs were student-athletes at different high schools in Pennsylvania.
The plaintiffs claimed that while each participated in their respective sports, (two played football, one played softball and volleyball,) they suffered serious head trauma and concussions that went undiagnosed and untreated by athletic personnel. Beyond the lack of treatment, the student-athletes claimed that they were pushed to return to games and practices after showing and complaining of concussion symptoms.
The plaintiffs filed suit against the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, Inc. (PIAA), the statewide non-profit association which develops rules and regulations for athletic activities for its approximately 1420 member schools throughout the Commonwealth. The plaintiffs brought claims of ordinary and gross negligence, and sought the establishment of a medical monitoring trust fund. They also requested certification as a class.
The PIAA filed preliminary objections seeking to dismiss the Complaint on several grounds. The PIAA argued that the plaintiffs were barred from making claims for sports-related injuries according to the “inherent risk/no duty” rule, which relieves another person from liability for activities that carry with them inherent risks known to the participants. It also claimed that it had no duty to the plaintiffs to prevent the types of alleged harm. The PIAA also argued that the plaintiffs failed to properly allege that the PIAA caused the harm suffered by the plaintiffs. Finally, the PIAA claimed that the issues presented by the plaintiffs were non-justiciable, or incapable of judicial determination.
Key to the PIAA’s defenses was the scope and function of the Safety in Youth Sports Act (SYSA). The SYSA was enacted in 2011 and established standards for managing concussions and traumatic brain injuries to student athletes in Pennsylvania. The Act imposes duties on the Departments of Health and Education, as well as penalties for noncompliant coaches. Sponsors of youth athletic activities in Pennsylvania that are not specifically addressed by the Act are nevertheless encouraged to follow the guidance laid out by the SYSA.
The Court’s Ruling
On appeal, the PIAA presented the following issues for review by the Commonwealth Court: (1) whether the plaintiffs’ negligence claims are non-justiciable due to the SYSA; (2) whether the plaintiffs’ claims are barred under the “inherent risk/no duty” rule; (3) whether a duty may not be imposed on the PIAA as a matter of public policy; and (4) whether the plaintiffs’ failed to properly allege causation of their injuries.
Quickly dismissing the issue of non-justiciability, the Court looked to the language of the SYSA, which specifically states that nothing in the Act should be construed to reduce, contract, or eliminate civil liability on the part of any school entity or school employee. Therefore, the Court ruled that there was no indication the General Assembly sought to eliminate civil suits like the one filed by the plaintiffs when it enacted the SYSA.
Next, the Court agreed with the trial court’s decision to overrule the PIAA’s preliminary objection due to the “inherent risk/no duty” rule. The Court acknowledged that recovery is generally denied to those who suffer injuries as a result of risks inherent to a specific activity. According to the Court, concussions are inherent to contact sports, and would themselves not entitle the plaintiffs to recovery. However, the Court determined that it was too early in the litigation to bar claims based on negligent pre- and post-concussion conduct, as alleged by the plaintiffs against the PIAA.
In order to determine whether a duty could be imposed on the PIAA, the Court considered the following five factors: (1) the existence of a relationship between the parties; (2) the social utility of the conduct; (3) the nature of the risk imposed and the foreseeability of the harm incurred; (4) the consequences of imposing a duty; and (5) the overall public interest in the solution proposed by the plaintiffs.
The Court acknowledged the negative consequences of imposing a duty on the PIAA, however, it found that a more developed record was necessary to make a final decision. Finally, while it would be in the public interest to adopt additional safety measures, the case may continue to determine whether such measures should be enforced through imposing a legal duty on the PIAA. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the ruling of the trial court and remanded for further proceedings.
Bottom Line for Schools
It is unclear at this point what discovery will hold for the viability of the claims filed against the PIAA. While the case proceeds, this is a good opportunity for school boards throughout Pennsylvania to review their policies for compliance with the Safety in Youth Sports Act, and address any lingering issues coaches may have with the Act.
While the SYSA makes hosting informational sessions about concussions and head trauma optional, schools may want to reconsider hosting such meetings, if they don’t already, in order to give parents and students more information about the risks associated with youth sports.
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.