Injured Athlete Unable to Prove that Coach's Mistreatment Trancends Negligence
John T. Wolohan
When high school and college athletes are injured as a result of improper medical care, their first reaction may be to sue the school for negligence. Negligence is not the only legal theory available, however. An example of an alternative is highlighted in Yatsko v. the Tamaqua Area School District [2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88967].
In 2005, Tracey Yatsko was a high school student playing on the Tamaqua High School basketball team. During a game, she collided with another player and banged her head. As a result of the collision, Yatsko immediately began to experience visual problems and a painful headache. At the end of the game, Yatsko informed Andrea Edmonds, the assistant basketball coach, that she had hit her head and was in a great deal of pain. Instead of taking Yatsko to the school's athletic trainer, Edmonds took Yatsko to her mother, who was watching the game, and told her that her daughter had been "bumped around in the game."
Two days later, even though Yatsko still had a painful headache and blurred vision, she traveled with her basketball team to its scheduled game. On the ride there, the pain was so severe that Yatsko cried on the bus, telling teammates and others that she had suffered a concussion and felt terrible. During warmups, head basketball coach Joseph Berezwick observed that Yatsko was struggling to participate, and when he asked her if there was anything wrong, she told him that she felt weak and that she had suffered a concussion in the previous game. Armed with this information, Berezwick established a signal with Yatsko and told her to use it to tell him or Edmonds if she needed to leave the game.
During the contest, Berezwick asked Yatsko several times if she was okay; she said she was, and played the entire game. After the game, however, Yatsko began to shake and collapsed onto the locker room floor. But rather than ask for an ambulance to be dispatched to the school, Yatsko said she wanted to go home, and her coaches helped her board the bus back to school. On the bus ride home, Berezwick asked Yatsko if the bus should stop at the hospital. Yatsko replied that she wanted to see her mother.
Once the team arrived back at Tamaqua High, Berezwick told Yatsko's mother that her daughter had wanted to play, and that he had made the wrong call by letting her. Yatsko's mother took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed as having suffered serious brain injuries that could potentially cause permanent health problems, including blurred vision, loss of balance, headaches and depression.
As a result of the medical treatment she received, Yatsko filed a lawsuit against Berezwick, Edmonds and the school district. However, instead of merely filing a state-law negligence claim, Yatsko also claimed that Berezwick and Edmonds' failure to obtain proper treatment for her head injury violated her constitutional right to be free from "state occasioned or created harm to her bodily integrity and health," pursuant to Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. In addition, Yatsko argued that the school district violated Section 1983 when it affirmatively created a danger to students by allowing students participating in potentially dangerous sporting activities to be in the care, custody and control of Berezwick and Edmonds.
In order for Yatsko to show that Berezwick, Edmonds and the school district violated her rights under Section 1983, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that she would have to establish two points. First, she would have to show that the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law. Second, the court held that she would have to show that the conduct deprived her of rights secured under the U.S. Constitution or federal law.
The court determined, first, that since the individual coaches were employed by the school district, they were acting under color of state law. With regard to the second issue, Yatsko argued that she was deprived of her Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process when Berezwick and Edmonds, in their role as employees, failed to keep her free from state-created dangers. In addition, Yatsko argued that the school district failed to established proper policies, procedures and training for personnel responsible for supervising athletes. Such neglect, Yatsko argued, amounted to reckless indifference to student-athletes' needs.
However, the court, citing County of Sacramento v. Lewis [523 U.S. 833, 118 S. Ct. 1708, 140 L. Ed. 2d 1043 (1998)], held that Yatsko must show that Berezwick and Edmonds' actions reached an even higher — or lower, depending on your point of view — standard. Yatsko would have to demonstrate, the court stated, that the coaches' actions were so ill-conceived or malicious that they "shock the conscience." Yatsko, the court concluded, was unable to do so. In support of its decision, the court noted that while her coaches knew, or should have known, that she probably had suffered a concussion, their actions — failing to ensure that Yatsko received treatment, or allowing her to play in a subsequent game — only amounted to negligence. As the court noted, the coaches did not use their authority to force her to play in the game or refuse a request for medical treatment — they simply made an ill-advised decision to allow her to participate, which by itself does not "shock the conscience."
As for Yatsko's Section 1983 claims against the school district, the court ruled that under Section 1983, respondeat superior liability — under which the "superior" is legally responsible for the acts of his or her subordinate — is unavailable, and torts committed by employees do not make a municipality liable. The only way the local governing body could be held liable, the court ruled, would be if the coaches were acting under an official policy or custom.
While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Collins v. City of Harker Heights [503 U.S. 115 (1992)] that the due-process clause should not be interpreted to impose federal duties that are analogous to those traditionally imposed by state tort law, Yatsko serves as a reminder to athletics administrators that federal law could conceivably also apply if coaches' or trainers' actions were found to be so ill-conceived or malicious that they go beyond mere negligence.
In addition, even though Yatsko lost her federal case against Berezwick, Edmonds and the Tamaqua Area School District, it should be noted that she is still free to refile a state-law negligence claim against the defendants based on their failure to respond properly to her medical condition. In order to successfully win such a claim, Yatsko would have to demonstrate that the defendants had a duty of care toward her; the defendants breached that duty; there was a causal connection between the conduct and the resulting injury; and she suffered actual loss or damages.
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