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Pennsylvania Court Finds College Has Limited Duty to Provide Athletic Trainers to Student Athletes

Posted: 10/22/2019
Industries: Higher Education | Sports | Sports and Entertainment

​Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Lackawanna College could face gross negligence and recklessness claims from two student football players by creating an expectation that athletic trainers would be available to the players at football practices and games. This decision could have far-ranging implications for all higher education institutions in Pennsylvania, which we explain in the article below.

Lackawanna’s Football Practice

In January 2010, Augustus Feleccia and Justin Resch aspired to make Lackawanna’s football team.  Both students signed a waiver and a separate consent form before trying out for the team. The waiver released Lackawanna from all liability resulting from their participation in football.  The consent form gave their “consent to receive emergency medical services in the event of an injury during an athletic event provided by the athletic trainer, team physician or hospital staff.”

Feleccia and Resch participated in the first day of spring contact football practices on March 29, 2010.  Both students suffered injuries while participating in the “Oklahoma drill,” a drill that was recently banned from NFL team practices due to the high risk of injury. The students were treated at the scene by two Lackawanna staff members who originally were hired as athletic trainers, but whose titles had been changed to “first responders” after they both failed the athletic trainer certification exam. Lackawanna did not have any full-time Board-certified athletic trainers on staff at the time of the practice.

The Lawsuit

Feleccia and Resch filed suit against Lackawanna, its athletic director, multiple football coaches, and the two “first responders,” asserting claims for damages caused by negligence, including negligence per se, gross negligence, and recklessness.  They sought compensatory and punitive damages, alleging that Lackawanna and the other defendants acted “willfully, wantonly and/or recklessly.”  Lackawanna filed a motion for summary judgment, primarily arguing that by signing the waiver, the students voluntarily released Lackawanna from liability for sports-related injuries.  The trial court agreed with Lackawanna, ruling that the waiver: (1) did not violate public policy; (2) was a contract between Lackawanna and the students relating to their own private affairs; and (3) was not a contract of adhesion.

The students appealed and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed.  The court agreed that the waiver was valid, but determined that it did not clearly and without ambiguity relieve the school of liability for its own acts of negligence.  Significantly, the Superior Court imposed a broad duty – not previously recognized by Pennsylvania courts – on colleges to their intercollegiate student-athletes to have qualified medical personnel available at all athletic events and practices, and to provide adequate treatment in the event a student-athlete suffered a medical emergency.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted Lackawanna’s petition to appeal the Superior Court’s decision.  Importantly for other colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court overruled the Superior Court’s imposition of its new obligation on colleges and universities to provide trained medical personnel at all athletic events and practices.

Despite rejecting the Superior Court’s imposition of a new legal duty that would apply in all instances to all Pennsylvania institutions of higher education, the Supreme Court nevertheless determined that the facts of this particular case implicated existing statutory and common law duties of care.  In other words, according to the Supreme Court, by customarily employing athletic trainers, requiring its students to consent to treatment from athletic trainers, and suggesting that trainers would be on-site, Lackawanna undertook a legal duty to provide duly licensed athletic trainers for the purpose of rendering treatment to its students participating in athletic events.  The Court explained:  “Under these circumstances, [the college] clearly created an expectation on which the student athletes might reasonably rely – i.e. in the case of injury during an athletic event, they receive treatment from a certified athletic trainer, as clearly outlined in the Consent they were required to sign.”

Finally, the Supreme Court determined that although the waiver the students signed precluded their claims for negligence, it did not prevent them from asserting their claims of gross negligence and recklessness.

Implications for Colleges and Universities

This decision not only raises new implications for colleges and universities with respect to their provision of athletic trainers at athletic events, but also potentially creates broader implications concerning a general duty of care owed to students.  It is important for Pennsylvania schools in particular to understand what duties are, and are not, imposed on them as a result of this decision.

It is clear that Pennsylvania colleges and universities are not inherently required to have qualified medical personnel at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to student-athletes.

It remains unclear, however, what actions a school might undertake that would qualify as “affirmative conduct” creating a special relationship with its student-athletes, requiring the school to exercise a reasonable duty of care in providing athletic trainers and adequate treatment.  In this case, Lackawanna’s actions in customarily employing licensed athletic trainers, requiring student-athletes to consent to treatment, and holding out the “first responders” as athletic trainers despite the fact that they lacked statutorily required licenses was sufficient for the court to find that Lackawanna undertook a duty to provide duly licensed athletic trainers.  At the very least, it appears that colleges and universities that have historically provided athletic trainers may be expected, if not legally obligated, to provide them at future athletic events.

We do not believe that this decision imposes a broader legal duty of care on institutions of higher education to protect all of their students from harm, and colleges and universities still do not stand in loco parentis with their students.  However, others may seek to use this decision to argue for a broader legal duty owed by schools to students, beyond the student-athlete context, by looking to other “voluntary undertakings” at an institution.

For questions about how this decision affects your institution, please reach out to the authors of this article.

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