Benched for Your Own Good

Is a coach liable for any injuries when he asks an injured athlete to return to the game? It’s the final scene of just about every hard-luck sports flick ever filmed.

In a recent article, Prof. Timothy Davis of Wake Forest Law observes that coach liability is a real risk in amateur and school athletics. “Coaches owe a duty of care to their students not to increase risks that are inherent in a sport.” Thus have coaches been held liable, from time to time, for their players’ injuries.

But what about in the wide world of professional sports? There’s not much precedent, but it should be possible:

The forgoing cases suggest that, where an athlete is injured as a consequence of a coach acting in a manner that is outside the realm of his or her expertise, potential liability based on recklessness might ensue. This is particularly the case where coaches have actual or constructive appreciation of the potential risks that might flow from their conduct.  Such would be the case when a coach’s decision is contrary to medical advice.  Similarly, a coach’s demand that an athlete return to play, given the coach’s absence of medical expertise, arguably provides evidence of recklessness, since it disregards an immediate and readily ascertainable risk, in contrast to an abstract possibility of risk.

Still, Davis lists a variety of bars to liability–worker’s comp, athletic “culture,” federal preemption, arbitration, etc.–and concludes that pro coaches don’t face great incentives to protect players’ health–at least, not yet.

The trial-bar-friendly New York Times has gone a bit overboard of late agitating about concussions in football. Davis, however, points to the league’s response as a model of how to make progress outside of the courtroom.

One Comment

  • The NYT harps on sports injuries because it doesn’t like the idea of physical people doing physical things. They’re all pencil-necked ninnies buried in words (a little like me) so thing it’s terrible, terrible that there might be a risk of injury in sports.