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Student Athlete Injuries and Liability when Children are Injured during Youth Sports

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Who can be Liable when a Child is Injured Playing Sports in NJ?

Many parents want their children to play sports to keep them healthy, help them form positive relationships, and learn about winning and losing to form their character. Studies show that student-athletes are more likely than others to maintain a healthy and physical lifestyle beyond elementary and secondary school. And untold benefits are associated with team sports, such as social interaction, cognitive development, and mental health adjustment. More high school athletes graduate from college compared to non-athletes, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But despite the benefits, young athletes risk injury each time they practice or play sports. When a child is participating in a sporting activity and is injured, those who are responsible for protecting them must be prepared, with a thorough understanding of their duties. Coaches, trainers, facilitators, and medical providers must understand the state and federal laws regarding student athletes, injuries, and prevention. Additionally, medical professionals operating in this context must have sufficient training, experience, and dedicated attention to ensure that minors playing sports receive proper care and further medical intervention if, and whenever necessary.

What are the Responsibilities of Athletic Trainers and Others when it Comes to Student Athletes?

Those who know better must do better. So, a youth coach paid by a private club and licensed through state licensing authorities may be required to know how to recognize and address injuries. With their advanced knowledge about health and sports, parents expect coaches to act within reason when assessing whether a player should remain on the field, in the arena, or within another sports venue, or to rely on other specially trained members of a school or youth sports organization. A member of a youth sports organization or school sports medicine team is held to a standard of conduct and behavior expected of someone with specialized knowledge. For example, athletic trainers are licensed by state licensing boards and must adhere to the rules and regulations of their governing boards, including carrying the appropriate liability insurance. They also must obey youth athletic association recommendations, school directives, and state common and statutory law regarding the health and safety of young athletes.

Sources of Liability when Youth Sports Players Suffer Injuries

When a youth sports player is injured during a game or practice, questions arise as to fault. Was the injury due to the inherent nature of the sport? For example, sprained ankles, wrists, and injured knees frequently happen in youth football. Concussions among youth football players also occur on a regular basis, ranging in severity from mild to severe. Anyone who plays the sport might reasonably accept the risk of potentially suffering these types of injuries in a high-contact sport. Concussions are usual occurrences in a variety of sporting activities, and the player may be assumed to bear the risk of sport-specific injuries. The same goes with ice hockey, where falls are certain to occur, leading to players twisting ankles, breaking arms, and experiencing other physical injuries while playing the sport. Most public and private schools and organizations providing youth sports activities have parents and players sign waivers for this reason.

There are individuals responsible for ensuring that school or organization is protected by the correct consent forms and privacy disclosure documents. But this protection only goes so far. A public or private employee acting within reason may not be held liable for a player’s injury, especially with a signed waiver and the player’s assumption of the risk in playing a sport. However, most waivers do not cover injuries caused by unreasonable behavior by those in charge.

When it comes to youth sporting activities, individual public or private sports team members may be liable for unreasonable or substandard behavior that is deemed negligence. A member of the sports medicine team, organization, or other individuals who contributed to the child’s injury may be sued for the student’s medical bills and other damages associated with the injury. The school or sports organization may also be liable for their employee if negligence occurred within the scope of the employee’s employment. Each case must be evaluated within the context of the complex laws in New Jersey, such as the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, which may protect public employees against lawsuits in certain cases. However, this is by no means a law without exceptions, as willful misconduct, recklessness, and demonstrable evidence of serious permanent injury, are just some of the many overriding factors.

For this reason, each situation must be examined on an individual basis to ascertain who, when, and what was involved in the negligence that contributed to the youth player’s harm.

Can You Sue for a Child being Allowed to Participate in a Team or Sporting Activity?

The same evaluation applies to allowing players to participate in sports in the first place. Each player for a school team must have a preseason health examination, including their general health history. Some public schools require students to provide proof of their health examination by a physician, certifying that they are fit to play the intended sport. Some schools provide the physical examination with physicians or mere volunteers, and others require proof of the exam only, without requiring a physician to perform the exam. Negligence may occur when a student’s health history is not reviewed and a student athlete is injured due such oversight.

For instance, a soccer player who is stung by a bee on the field and goes into anaphylactic shock, needs emergency care to save their life. With no one on staff knowing about the bee sting allergy, the sports staff and school may be liable for the student’s permanent injuries or death. Other serious and obvious disqualifications may involve heart conditions and degenerative bone diseases. A physician or other personnel may be liable for inadequate pre-screening of players who end up injured. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the child’s regular doctor or general practitioner is also required to adequately assess and identify problems that may rule out the young person’s safe participation in sports.

How Do You Know if You Have a Claim Against a Sports Medicine Team?

Ultimately, liability depends on the actions of each member of a sports team’s medical caretakers. The athletic trainer, specializing in injury prevention and care, is the one who typically administers first aid and works under a team physician. This group works with other administrators, sports personnel, and parents, to ensure that children participating in sports are not subject to undue harm or inadequate medical attention. An athletic trainer who does not follow the directions of the physician may be liable to a player they injure. And both the trainer and physician may be liable in instances of poor communication or substandard practices and care. For example, a team physician may be liable for not having the requisite experience with musculoskeletal injuries that commonly occur within the various sports they oversee. In other words, they lack the expertise for the job and hurt a player as a result. Unfortunately, even those with the requisite knowledge and training more prioritize the team’s goals over the player’s needs. This is not only unacceptable; it may be the legal basis for a medical malpractice or personal injury claim.

What occurs before and after an injury is crucial to assess fault. An athletic trainer or other team medical professional may be responsible for failing to recognize and take corrective action in a timely manner, thus allowing the child’s condition to deteriorate, or in the worst cases, actionably making an injury worse. The role of the team physician is to have a system in place to respond effectively to injuries incurred in play. They need to have an injury response protocol, document incidences in which players are injured, and communicate with the healthcare team and parents without infringing on the patient’s right to healthcare privacy.

Team physicians typically tend to health-related events associated with sport; however, it is incumbent upon them to recognize an emergency situation that is well beyond their level of expertise. This may occur in situations involving serious head and spinal injuries, or severe physical trauma that may require immediate surgery or other medical intervention. Dehydration and heat stroke are also common serious injuries that may be within the purview of a team physician, but each case must be evaluated based on the individual circumstances and the child’s current condition and health overall. These medical professionals are expected to consult with specialists when necessary or to refer players and their parents to the necessity for specialist testing and examination.

If team physicians fail to carefully evaluate the youth athlete before they participate in sports, to competently diagnose and treat injuries during a sporting event, or to refer the athlete to specialists, they may be liable for malpractice. Likewise, an athletic trainer may be liable for injuries due to their negligence in administering aid or in failing to consult with a physician when the injury requires higher medical training and experience to adequately diagnose and treat a condition. Regardless of the scenario, a child’s injury due to the negligence of a team physician, athletic trainer, or other members of the sports medicine team should not go unaddressed.

Examples of Negligence that may Result in Child Sports Injuries

When a player is injured due to conditions that the medical team, school, or members of a youth sports organization knows or should know are dangerous or more likely to cause injury, then negligence supporting a lawsuit may be more successful. Many causes may contribute to student/youth sports player injuries, such as:

  • defective equipment;
  • poor field, track, or court conditions;
  • faulty supervision;
  • failure to recommend that a player stop the activity after injury;
  • failure to send a student athlete for emergency medical care when serious injuries arise;
  • failure to recognize signs of medical distress;
  • failure to obtain proper consent forms;
  • failure to communicate accurately with other medical personnel;
  • failure to obtain proper player medical history before allowing the child to engage in the activity

Negligence with Concussions during Youth Sporting Events

When a player hits their head, most sports organizations have protocols for detecting and treating concussions, including testing the player, keeping the player sidelined, and sending them to a doctor for follow-up. Unfortunately, the pressure players feel to perform, and the willingness of some to overlook or diminish potentially serious injuries, can lead to inaccurate or incomplete information that is crucial to an assessment of whether a player should resume play. Most concussion assessments rely in part on a player’s subjective complaints, along with an examination by the team’s athletic trainer or team physician. So, an athletic trainer or team physician that allows a player back in a game after a head injury may be liable if that player is further injured while playing with a concussion, or experiences complications due to a head injury that went undiagnosed and untreated. Their judgment becomes the measure of liability: whether it was based on a reasonable assessment and the player’s best interests, a coach’s pressuring for a win, or pure incompetence.

Has Your Child Suffered Sports Injuries due to Negligence in New Jersey?

Getting legal advice from an attorney who practices in the highly specialized pediatric malpractice field is the first step toward receiving just compensation for a child’s preventable and unwarranted sports injuries. A medical malpractice attorney who regularly handles cases involving injuries to children can help you determine your potential grounds for legal action and damages, while also ensuring that the lawsuit is filed in time, with each phase of the process executed in the best possible manner.

Our attorneys share a commitment to assisting parents, children, and families across New Jersey with holding negligent parties accountable. We are united in a shared commitment to making sure that the responsible parties pay, not only for their child’s past and ongoing medical care, but for the incalculable physical and emotional harm of unwarranted failures by those with a duty to these children. Call 866-708-8617 for further information and to arrange a free consultation regarding your child’s case today.

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