Colter Rios was playing in a junior varsity football game for Grossmont (Calif.) High School in 2008 when he felt a pop in his right ankle as he was tackled. Although he complained of pain when he tried to stand up, his coaches sent him back into the game without having the ankle examined. Colter was eventually removed from the game and sent to the athletic trainer to get his ankle taped.
The athletic trainer, Keoki Kamau, was not there, so Adrian Dunn, a college athletic training student who had been assisting Kamau on a volunteer basis, examined Colter's ankle. Dunn found no bruising, deformity or other abnormality and, after taping Colter's ankle, had him jog, zigzag, sprint and backpedal. Colter told the trainer he felt fine and was then cleared to return to the game. Upon returning, however, Colter fractured two of his cervical vertebrae and injured his spinal cord when he was tackled. The injuries prompted Rios' mother to file suit against the Grossmont Union High School District, alleging that the district was negligent to allow Colter to continue to play after injuring his ankle, and that the initial injury caused him to subsequently sustain permanent and debilitating injuries.
In most cases involving negligence, the courts will use a basic negligence standard, which asks the jury to decide how a reasonably careful or prudent person would have acted in the same situation. In some cases, however, especially when dealing with medical personnel, the courts will look at the national standards promulgated by a national organization to hold the individual to a higher standard of care. This was at the core of Rios v. Grossmont Union High School District, 2013 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 9007.
As the case proceeded to jury trial, the court had to determine the applicable standard of care that the school owed Colter. Rios contended that the standards promulgated by the National Athletic Trainers' Association should govern because certification of athletic trainers in the United States is done exclusively by NATA; NATA regulates students who wish to become certified athletic trainers; and the district recognized the importance of NATA certification by hiring Kamau, a certified athletic trainer bound by NATA standards.
The district argued that the standards promulgated by the California Interscholastic Federation, not NATA, should govern. In support of its position, the district argued NATA standards were not binding because California does not regulate athletic trainers and does not require high schools to have a certified athletic trainer on staff. The district also asserted the CIF is the governing body for high school sports in California, and it publishes a sports medicine handbook that is meant to serve as a guideline for school administrators, coaches, sports medicine staff, students and parents to use to protect the health and welfare of students.
At trial, the court rejected Rios' position and ruled that NATA standards did not establish the applicable standard of care, and thus the district was not negligent. Rios appealed, claiming that the general negligence standard articulated in the instruction given by the trial court failed to provide the jury with any meaningful guidance on how to evaluate the conduct of a certified athletic trainer (Kamau) and an athletic training student (Dunn).
In particular, Rios claimed that the instructions given the court were too general and that special instructions based on NATA standards should have been given in light of Kamau's and Dunn's superior knowledge and training. The district countered that the NATA standards are not the applicable standard of care in California. The trial court permitted the jury to consider the CIF guidelines in determining whether the district breached the standard of care.
In ruling for the district, the court found that at the conference on jury instructions, Rios' trial attorney agreed to the general instructions given that this case called for a basic negligence standard, which would allow the jury to decide whether the caretakers — Kamau and Dunn — exercised reasonable care under the circumstances. Thus, by agreeing to the general instructions and not requesting more-specific instructions based on NATA standards, Rios may not later complain that those instructions were too general.
In addition, the court found that even applying the more general standard of care, Rios was still free to question all of the district's witnesses regarding NATA. In particular, the court noted that Rios was free to ask Kamau about his NATA certification, what he was taught in terms of what NATA standards required, and why those standards were adopted. This would have allowed the jury to consider that testimony in deciding whether the district acted reasonably in treating Colter's ankle injury. Rios' trial attorney, however, failed to ask any question about the requirements of any particular NATA standards. Had counsel done so, he might have obtained helpful testimony about the custom or practice among certified athletic trainers regarding assessment and treatment of the ankle injury suffered by Colter. Without testimony about what NATA standards required under the circumstances of this case, the court found Rios could not complain on appeal that the trial court erred by refusing to instruct the jury regarding those standards.
SERVE AND PROTECT
The court's decision provides valuable lessons to school and athletic administrators. First, it is important to note the standard of care applied in negligence cases can change from person to person. For example, while generally the courts ask what a reasonable or prudent person would have done in the same situation, medical personnel or individuals with special training can usually be held to a higher standard of care, especially when dealing with minors.
Second, if you live or work in a state like California that does not regulate athletic trainers and does not require high schools to have a certified athletic trainer on staff, you should still know the standards promulgated by NATA or other national organizations that certify and regulate the standards of the profession. Although the state may not regulate athletic trainers, because certification of athletic trainers in the United States is done exclusively by NATA, the state's courts can still use the organization's standards as the standard of care to use to protect the health and welfare of students.
Attorney John T. Wolohan is a professor of sports law in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University. Direct all questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in the August issue of Athletic Business under the title, "Training Daze."