14th Amendment Requires Schools to Protect High School football players from concussion injuries

On September 21, 2017, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals filed a precedential opinion ruling that high school football players have a constitutional right to be protected from further harm after suffering a concussion injury on the field.

Ironically, the School District and its head football coach won the case–but not on the merits. The Court ruled the head coach had qualified immunity. This type of immunity protects people from being sued when there has been no prior ruling that a particular act violated the constitution.

Court Opened Door to Future Claims

Thus, although the District and its coach won this lawsuit, the case opens the door for future claims against schools’ athletic programs.

The case just decided was Mann v. Palmerton Area School District2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18261 (3d Cir. 2017).

One of the “bigger hits” ever seen.

In November 2011, Palmerton student Sheldon Mann experienced a hard hit during a practice session. Sheldon’s teammates testified in depositions that they believed Sheldon was suffering from a concussion after this hit and were surprised he was allowed to continue to practice. One teammate even testified that it was one of the “bigger hits” he had ever seen. Another teammate testified that Sheldon looked as though he were dizzy and was stumbling around the field.

Coach Sends Sheldon Back into Game

The coach sent Sheldon back into the game and, after twenty plays, he suffered a second hard hit to the upper body. In response to a question from the coach, Sheldon told the coach “it was the hardest hit he received in playing football. Sheldon was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.

State-Created Danger Theory

Sheldon’s parents sued in federal court in Scranton on a “state created danger” theory. They alleged that the school and its coach, by requiring Sheldon to continue to practice after sustaining the first substantial blow, violated his 14th Amendment rights.

Sheldon States Constitutional Claim Says Court

The 3rd Circuit first decided that Sheldon’s allegations were sufficient to state a constitutional claim. It held a jury could find that, by failing to remove Sheldon from play and requiring him to continue to practice, the coach was deliberately indifferent to the risk posed by suffering a second substantial blow to the head.

However, the analysis did not stop there. Under federal law, if a right is not clearly established so that the defendant knows he is violating the constitution, he has what is known as “qualified immunity from suit.”

In the opinion written by Judge Vanaskie, he noted that this type of claim had never been decided before:

“…In November of 2011, it was not so plainly obvious that requiring a student-athlete, fully clothed in protective gear, to continue to participate in practice after sustaining a violent hit and exhibiting concussion symptoms implicated the student athlete’s constitutional rights. The touchstone of qualified immunity analysis is whether there was ‘sufficient precedent at the time of action…to put the defendant on notice that his…conduct is constitutional prohibited.”

Since the law was not clearly established, the coach was immune from suit and Sheldon lost his case.

The Take Away

Although the Court ruled that Sheldon Mann had no claim against the Palmerton School District or its coach, the door is now open to future constitutional claims. The ruling was labelled as “precedential.” The right to be protected from such injuries is now clearly established which puts all high school sports programs to take precautions to protect their student athletes.

~Jerry Geiger

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