Overspecialization in Youth Sports: The Risks and Rights of Young Athletes (Part II)

In part I of this article, we explored the mounting scientific evidence against overspecialization in youth sports.  Recent studies have shown that young athletes who train intensively in a single sport face a higher risk of both traumatic and overuse injuries.  In this Part II, the focus is on the liability exposure of coaches, trainers, schools, and athletic organizations, for the injuries suffered by their young athletes.

Most lawsuits involving sports-related injury are based on negligence—any person harmed because of another person’s carelessness or failure to reasonably perform a legal duty is entitled to compensation.

The following elements must be satisfied to prove negligence: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the injured person; (2) a breach of that duty by the defendant; (3) the breach caused the injury; and (4) actual harm (not just potential for the harm to occur).  The injured person has the burden of proving that all four elements occurred.

Legal Duties of Coaches, Trainers and Schools to Young Athletes

Courts have established that coaches, athletic trainers, school districts and athletic organizations, owe varying duties of care to their athletes.  A breach of these duties, resulting in harm to an athlete, can constitute negligence.

Coaches have the general duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable risk of harm to their athletes.  To meet this standard of care, coaches must be aware of preventable risks and must carry out measures to properly supervise their athletes.  A coach’s awareness of a potential risk may help establish that the harm from such risk was foreseeable.

Athletic trainers are responsible for protecting the health and safety of an athlete.  They have the duty to properly assess the athlete’s condition and provide or obtain appropriate medical treatment.   If they clear an athlete for participation, they must inform the athlete of the risks of participation given the medical condition.   In fulfilling these duties, the athletic trainer must act with the skill and knowledge that is reasonable within the profession.

School districts have the duty to hire appropriate athletic personnel, provide suitable sports equipment, and make proper medical treatment available.  A school board also has the duty to establish rules for student safety.  Failure to establish or enforce such rules can result in liability.  Schools can be held responsible for the negligent acts of its coaches, managers, trainers and officials. They can be liable if an employed coach fails to warn against the risks of an activity or fails to implement safety guidelines appropriate under the circumstances.

Right of Injured Young Athletes to Compensation

Given that the studies establishing the dangers of early overspecialization are highly publicized and that sampling or diversification is becoming a more universally acceptable form of youth training, coaches, trainers, schools and organizations should be aware that overuse injuries are foreseeable for early specializers.  Courts may hold them liable for damages if they disregard this foreseeable risk of harm and fail to protect young athletes from the dangers of overspecialization.

The plaintiff-injured athlete however has the daunting task of establishing negligence.  In lawsuits where the plaintiff prevailed there are egregious facts.  Egregious facts such as where the defendants were found to have acted with serious inattention, ignorance, blatant supervisory misfeasance, and reckless disregard toward an athlete’s health and welfare.  Anything short of serious misconduct will likely result in a finding that coaches, athletic trainers, school districts and sports organizations were not negligent or at fault for the injuries.

Cases where egregious facts may be present are situations where a young athlete has certain injuries, medical conditions or other red flags, but the athletic trainer clears the young athlete for competition.  Or the coach pressures or shames the athlete to play, resulting in new or worsened injuries that would have been avoided had the young athlete properly recovered from the initial issue.  Or coaches requiring a young athlete to perform a drill or activity that the athlete is developmentally not ready for, resulting in a significant injury or debilitating condition.

Defense – Assumption of the Risk

A young athlete participating in sports and athletics carries certain inherent risks. For instance, explosive movements (e.g. cutting) in sports like basketball and football, carry the inherent risk of knee and/or ankle injuries.  Soccer carries the risk of developing traumatic head and neck injuries from violent collisions and headers.  A young athlete, and the athlete’s parents, that choose to compete in these sports assume a certain risk of injury inherent through mere participation and competition.

The doctrine of assumption of risk can potentially bar a plaintiff from recovering any compensation for an injury or result in a significant percentage of comparative fault.  In Arizona, the defense of assumption of the risk factors into the defense of comparative fault.  Assumption of the risk is applicable when the injured athlete had knowledge of the danger involved, appreciated the nature of the risk, and voluntarily accepted the risk.

Assumption of the risk defense is generally applicable to injuries that are inherent risks of a particular sport.  From a general perspective, coaches, athletic trainers, school districts, etc. are not liable for injuries that fall within the inherent risk for a particular sport.  However, certain exceptions do exist because each case is evaluated and decided on its own merits.

While the young athlete has the burden of proving negligence and certain defenses have barred (or significantly reduced) some athletes from recovering damages, many sports injury lawsuits have succeeded. Coaches, trainers and schools today are far more vulnerable to negligence liability for sports injuries than they were previously because of recent developments in case law.  If you are a parent with a child who suffered sports injuries because of egregious conduct by a coach, athletic trainer, school district or organization, contact SFI Law Group for a case evaluation.