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John T. Wolohan Discusses How Damages Are Awarded by Courts

"Sports Law" contributor John T. Wolohan offers an opinion about how damages are awarded by the courts.

A quarter of a million dollars for leaving an injured athlete unattended? A third of a million for leaving a pole unpadded? It's no wonder, as you look at Sallinen and Gill (right), that laypeople are confused about how damages are awarded by the courts. Generally, when someone is injured, the courts will award compensatory damages to cover actual injuries or economic loss for such things as medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages and the repair or replacement of property. In addition to general damages, the courts can also award punitive damages (sometimes called exemplary damages) to punish someone for especially outrageous conduct - such as allowing students to play basketball around poles that they know to be dangerous - or to encourage people within an industry to change a current dangerous practice.

While the law is supposed to be blind when rendering justice, when it awards damages it clearly does so with both eyes wide open. For example, it is difficult for people serving on a jury not to feel sympathy for someone who has suffered serious injuries, especially if the injured person is young. At the same time, juries tend to look at insurance companies and large organizations as having bottomless pockets. Therefore, it is only human nature that if someone must pay for the injury, juries find it easier to pass the buck to the faceless corporation.

A system like this, which allows human emotions to become involved, isn't perfect; it often results in very curious awards and seemingly unfair verdicts. It does help encourage insurance companies to settle cases before getting to a jury, however, thereby compensating the injured person sooner. Further, you can make the case that the human element is essential. If removed, and damage awards were based on a straight financial formula, the awards could never truly accommodate an injured person for all his or her suffering.

Case Summary

Sallinen v. Upper Lake Union High School District During football practice at Upper Lake (Calif.) High School, Justin Sallinen suffered a fractured femur, torn meniscus and a possible torn ACL in his knee. After removing him from the field, coaches apparently left him alone in the locker room without making sure he had a ride home. While attempting to walk to a pay phone to call for a ride home, Sallinen fell again. His injuries required four surgeries to repair. It was unclear at trial (Sallinen v. Upper Lake Union High School District) whether Sallinen tore his ACL on the field or as he walked to the pay phone, but the jury decided the latter and awarded him $250,000.

Gill v. Tamalpais Jennifer Gill, a sophomore at Redwood (Calif.) High School, was hoping to impress basketball coaches at an open gym but, instead, a metal pole that was supporting a basketball backboard made an impression on her. Normally, the poles were covered with safety padding, but those were not being used the day Gill received the cut above her eye. Adding insult to injury, while Gill was waiting for first-aid treatment in the trainers' room, she fell off a counter and knocked out a tooth. At trial (Gill v. Tamalpais Union High School District), the jury found in favor of Gill and awarded her $336,932. The school district appealed, claiming primary assumption of risk, but the court affirmed the jury's decision, finding that the school increased the risk by allowing students to play basketball around poles that they knew to be dangerous.

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