Who is Liable for a Sports Brain Injury?

News » Who is Liable for a Sports Brain Injury?

Each year, thousands of people of all ages and experience levels partake in organized sports and sustain a head injury. While it is assumed that people in charge are taking safety precautions to prevent injuries, the brain injury statistics reveal an issue larger than previously thought.

The CDC reports that between 2010 and 2016, an average of 283,000 emergency room visits per year for sports and recreation–related traumatic brain injuries (SRR-TBIs) occurred among children. Thousands of brain injuries and concussions go unreported and untreated as well.

These injuries occur in almost every contact sport, but are most prevalent in sports like football, hockey, and soccer.

But with these startling numbers, who is at fault? Who can be held responsible for brain injuries in sports? Determining who is liable for a sports brain injury can be difficult. Every case is different, with unique factors and situations leading to and following the injury.

Below we will discuss how different parties can be held liable for sports-related brain injuries:

Who Could Be Held Liable for a Sports Brain Injury?

There are a range of different people and groups that could be found at fault for a sports brain injury:

Coaches

Coaches of the player who suffered the injury can be held liable for a brain injury. This instance typically happens when coaches know of a player’s previous head injuries and put them in dangerous situations. Coaches can also be held liable for putting an athlete at unnecessary risk without prior warning to the athlete of the assumed risks of the activity.

Coaches can also be held liable for brain injuries occurring as a result of blatant disregard for the laws or regulations of the sport.

Examples:

A coach decides to start a player who has been recently diagnosed with a concussion but who has not been cleared to play. The player suffers a second concussion resulting in a TBI.

Despite local regulations outlawing the use of the popular but dangerous football drill, "bull in the ring", a defensive line coach decides to run the drill as part of a tackling training. A player suffers a serious brain injury as a result.

Equipment Manufacturers

Companies producing protective equipment for the head, like football or hockey helmets, can be held liable for brain injuries suffered by players. If there are product defects which jeopardize player safety leading to initial or worsened head injuries, the manufacturer could face legal action.

Examples:

A snow-skiing gear manufacturer produces a new helmet that has a sub-par impact rating that does not meet regulatory safety standards. A user wearing the product correctly suffers a head injury after crashing.

A bobsled manufacturer produces a new sled design for Team USA. The manufacturer fails to adequately test all safety features of the sled to ensure user safety. During trial runs, the team members are not securely held in the sled, due to a design malfunction. The team members are tossed from the sled and one member suffers a life-threatening brain injury.

Sports Venue Owners and Property Owners

The person or group in charge of a venue where a brain injury occurs could be held liable. Liability could be determined if those in charge of the venue fail to provide a safe environment for athletes. If a venue lacks qualified staff, medical response plans, or does not maintain the general upkeep of facilities leading to an injury, those behind the operation could be held liable.

Examples:

An ice rink fails to replace torn padding on a metal pole on one of the team benches, despite previously being warned of the hazard. During a game, a player is checked into the pole and the padding tears off. The players face makes direct contact with the pole and he suffers a serious concussion.

A soccer pitch fails to secure the goalposts on the field. During a match, a large gust of wind picks up and causes a goalpost to topple over, striking the goaltender in the back of the head. The goaltender suffers a minor brain injury.

League/Competition Organizers and Public Entities

Similar to property owners, those in charge of organizing league and competition operations could be held liable for injuries to athletes if they do not adequately warn athletes and coaches of dangers or do not have an adequate medical emergency plan. Schools or academically organized sports leagues are included in this category, as well as the referee staff.

Examples:

An organized and state-sanctioned high school football league is hosting a Friday night game between rival schools. The on-staff medical professional is out sick. The schools, not wanting to cancel the event but unable to find a professional replacement, decide to allow a father to act as the medical professional for the game -the father has a degree in sports science and is a licensed chiropractor. During the game, a player suffers a major TBI. The father, acting as the medical professional, says that the injury is outside of his purview and the player cannot be treated until he reaches the nearest trauma center. In that time, his injuries intensify and he is left with permanent damage.

A local YMCA hosts a soccer league for K-12. They ensure to parents that they have player safety in mind and that all necessary precautions are taken to make sure players are always safe including onsite medical response. However, none of the workers are medically trained and the league does not offer any form of emergency medical response team, despite this information not being disclosed to parents. There is only a basic first-aid kit on site. A player suffers a concussion during the game resulting in long-term brain injury.

Doctors

Medical professionals can be held liable for a sports brain injury, specifically in their response to patients. Wrongful diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and medical malpractice are instances in which the doctor can face legal action.

Examples:

A star football player suffers a concussion during the state semi-finals. Despite his best judgments and medical training, the team doctor encourages the player to play in the state final after being pressured by the team, coach, and friends. The player suffers a second concussion resulting in permanent paralysis during the state final.

A doctor misdiagnoses a head injury due to a high dive accident, telling the diver he has suffered a minor concussion and can return to competition in two weeks' time. The diver has actually suffered a TBI. During the next event, the high impact of the dive causes the diver to suffer a second TBI resulting in permanent disability.

Other Players

If another player acts in a malicious manner, outside of the scope of expected conduct, they could be held liable for a sports brain injury. This includes any actions taken that would not be deemed appropriate or proportionate to the sport.

Examples:

A field hockey player strikes another player in the back of the head with her field hockey stick after the whistle, causing the player to suffer a serious contusion.

During the post-game handshaking line, a basketball player punches an opposing player in the face, knocking the player unconscious and causing brain damage.

The Athlete who was Injured

The athlete who attained a brain injury could be held liable for their own injuries, meaning they do not have the legal avenue to collect compensation for their injuries from another party. If an athlete is injured within the scope of expected injury or as a result of their own decisions, they could be liable for their own injury.

Examples:

A competitive waterskier takes a nasty fall during a practice run of competition. The skier suffers a major concussion and long-term injuries. No product defects or secondary actor negligence caused the fall. The competition had a responsive medical team assist and treat the skier.

A soccer player is told by his primary care physician that he cannot play in the upcoming tournament due to a head injury. When asked by his coach, he says he is cleared to play. The player suffers a secondary injury that results in long-term brain development issues.

Shared Liability

Liability can be shared between multiple parties if it can be determined that multiple parties are responsible for different factors leading to and following the incident. In the circumstance that a doctor tells a player that they have a concussion or brain injury, but they can play if they choose to, the liability for further injuries would be shared between the injured athlete and the doctor. Shared liability can be determined with parties other than medical personnel.

Examples:

A school doctor misdiagnoses a player's injuries, resulting in further and more serious injury. Both the school and the school doctor could potentially be held liable for this injury.

A motocross protective gear manufacturer puts out a new line of neck support braces that do not meet regulatory standards. The products do not carry any of the regulatory certifications. A local shop, knowing that the products are not safe, decides to sell them anyway due to the earnings potential of the cheap-to-purchase neck braces. A local motocross racer suffers a neck & brain injury due to the product's defects. Both the manufacturer and the seller can be held liable for the injuries.

A baseball player is not cleared for participation by the team doctor. The player is told that he may suffer another brain injury if he does not register for injured reserves for the next month of the season. The coach and the player decide together that it is worth the risk to have him play. The player does end up suffering another brain injury. Both the player, the coach, and the organization could share some liability for the injury.

Collecting Evidence

Evidence is key in sports brain injury lawsuits and crucial in determining liability.

Sufficient evidence to collect in a sports brain injury claim would be:

  • Medical bills
  • Medical reports & documentation
  • Contracts & player agreements
  • Personal accounts of the incident
  • Witness testimony
  • Photos and/or videos of the incident
  • Photos and videos of the injuries & progression of injuries
  • Product warnings & adverse health risks / injuries reports
  • First responder reports

Meet with an attorney to gain more individualized insight on what evidence is relevant for your case.

Assumption of Risk

Assumption of Risk is a legal defense tactic in personal injury lawsuits. This legal doctrine prohibits plaintiffs from collecting damages when voluntarily participating in an activity they knew could cause injuries.

Assumption of risk is usually outlined in waiver agreements or accepted by plaintiffs verbally. If a defendant attempts to argue assumption of risk, that does not mean your case has no route forward. The burden of providing proof that you were aware of danger is on the defendant at that point.

Every case is different; talk to an attorney to gain more individualized insight for your claim.

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