A California judge has ruled that a teenage football player who was paralyzed following an on-field hit can take his case against the Pop Warner organization to trial.
Donnovan Hill was allegedly taught by his Pop Warner coaches to tackle in a dangerous, head-first manner. Hill used this tackling technique in games, including the 2011 Southern California championship game when he was 13. He is now a quadriplegic with minimal use of his arms.
According to ABC News, Pop Warner said that the lawsuit brought against them should be dismissed, because Hill’s mother, Crystal Dixon, had signed a waiver acknowledging the dangers of playing football and the potential of serious injury. Judge Frederick Shaller ruled that the waiver does not protect Pop Warner from claims of gross negligence.
In his ruling, Shaller also declined to absolve the national Pop Warner organization from responsibility in the case, because it allowed Hill to be coached by volunteers with no formal training on preferred tackling technique.
The coach at the center of the case claimed at first that he had completed the required online training, but later admitted to never having taken the training course. Lawyers representing Hill and his mother claim that the Pop Warner organization doesn’t do enough work behind the scenes to promote player safety.
That is significant, according to Doug Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri, because it holds a national youth sports organization accountable for a process failure that didn’t protect an individual from serious injury at the community level.
"It should have the effect of encouraging more coaches to get trained," Abrams said. "We don't live in the 1970s anymore, particularly in a sport like football where you have concussions. Cases like this are going to make governing bodies more attuned to promoting certification classes and refresher courses and providing greater oversight than what Pop Warner showed here. Sometimes it takes something like this to wake people up."
Pop Warner’s liability insurance policy only has $2 million on it. At trial, Hill’s lawyer could ask for $10 million to cover long-term medical care. That would mean that Hill could potentially receive all of the assets owned by the national Pop Warner office.