School, Coaches Not Responsible for Player's Elbow to Opponent's Head

During the second half of a Jan. 2004 basketball game between Iowa Mennonite High School and the Winfield-Mt. Union Community School District, WMU guard Andrew McSorley struck Iowa Mennonite's Jeremy Brokaw in the head with his elbow, knocking him to the court.

During the second half of a Jan. 2004 basketball game between Iowa Mennonite High School and the Winfield-Mt. Union Community School District, WMU guard Andrew McSorley struck Iowa Mennonite's Jeremy Brokaw in the head with his elbow, knocking him to the court. The referee called a technical foul on McSorley and ejected him from the game, and Brokaw quickly got up and returned to the Iowa Mennonite bench. He would later return to the game, although he played poorly.

Brokaw and his parents filed a lawsuit seeking actual and punitive damages of more than $1.5 million from McSorley and WMU. In their claim, the Brokaws claimed that McSorley had committed assault and battery against Jeremy, and that WMU was negligent in failing to control McSorley's conduct. At trial, the Brokaws introduced medical testimony that Jeremy was suffering from post-concussion syndrome, and introduced several witnesses that testified Jeremy underwent a personality and behavior change after the assault.

While the trial court found against McSorley and awarded the Brokaws $23,000 for medical expenses and for Jeremy's pain and suffering, the Brokaws' claim against WMU was dismissed. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's decision, and the Brokaws appealed to the Supreme Court of Iowa. On appeal, the Brokaws contended that the lower courts failed to award Jeremy adequate compensatory damages, incorrectly denied punitive damages and erroneously dismissed the negligence claim against WMU.

In its review of Brokaw v. Winfield-Mt. Union Community School District [8 N.W.2d 386 (Iowa Sup., 2010)], the Supreme Court of Iowa began by examining the compensatory damages awarded to the Brokaws. While the lower court expressed difficulty in determining which of Jeremy's symptoms were caused by the battery, the Supreme Court found that Brokaw had failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that McSorley's battery proximately caused Jeremy to sustain damages for past lost wages, loss of future earning capacity, future medical expenses, future loss of full mind and body, and future medical pain and suffering. These claims, the Supreme Court concluded, were at best speculative; months after the game Jeremy slipped on ice and hit his head, and during the summer he was hit in the head by a pitch during a baseball game. These subsequent injuries, the court concluded, could have been the cause of some of his symptoms.

Next, the Supreme Court examined the lower court's denial of punitive damages. The Brokaws argued that since the court found battery, an intentional tort, it was obligated to impose punitive damages. In rejecting the argument, the Supreme Court held that a key feature of punitive damages is that they are always discretionary and not a matter of right, no matter how intentional the misconduct. Therefore, since the lower court took into account the nature of McSorley's action, characterizing it as a split-second decision in the heat of the moment during a close basketball game, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court did not abuse its discretion.

Brokaw's final argument, that WMU was negligent in failing to control McSorley's conduct, invoked the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, better known as vicarious liability. Under this theory, if an employee commits an act of ordinary negligence during the course of his or her employment, the courts will hold the employer (as well as the employee) liable for the negligent actions, since the employer is presumed to have control over what his or her employees are doing, and should therefore be able to prevent injury. Intentional or negligent acts that are outside the scope of an employee's responsibility and authority are generally considered the sole responsibility of the employee and outside the doctrine of vicarious liability. Exceptions to this rule occur when an employer can be shown to have benefited from, had notice of or condoned the act.

In Brokaw, the Supreme Court held that the school and coach's duty to control the actions of their players was limited to those risks that are reasonably foreseeable. The court also noted, however, that where liability is premised on the negligent or intentional acts of a third party (in this case, McSorley), the law must take care to avoid requiring excessive precautions on the part of administrators, even when a player's improper conduct could be regarded as somewhat foreseeable. To illustrate its point, the court held that during the course of a game, a coach must make a determination of whether or not to allow a player to participate. If the coach's knowledge of the immediate circumstances or the general character of the player should alert the coach that misconduct is foreseeable, then reasonable care would require the coach to make the decision to bench that player until the risk of harm dissipated.

Under this standard, the Supreme Court ruled that the question of whether WMU breached its duty of care depended on WMU's knowledge of McSorley's general character and the nature of the immediate circumstances. In examining McSorley's general character, the court found that the evidence showed that he was an intense player, even one who tended to become frustrated and had a short fuse. That was not enough, the Supreme Court ruled, to show that WMU should have foreseen that McSorley would commit battery against Brokaw. Foreseeability, the court held, must mean something more than awareness of the ever-present possibility that an athlete may become overly excited and engage in physical contact beyond the precise boundaries of acceptably aggressive play. To hold otherwise, the court held, would make schools and coaches liable every time they allowed their enthusiastic players to participate.

The Supreme Court of Iowa's decision in Brokaw reinforces the theory that administrators can only be held liable for the intentional actions of their players if they knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that the athlete was likely to commit an act such as battery against an opposing player. To find otherwise would have subjected coaches to lawsuits for every intentional tort committed by their players, whether or not they knew of the danger the player posed. This exposure would probably have forced a majority of high school coaches to reconsider the profession.

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