Search SciPol

Brought to you by

District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania rules on coach and school’s liability for student athlete’s traumatic brain injury (Mann v. Palmerton Area School District) Download PDF

  • Government
  • Judicial
  • Neuroscience

Determines that the constitutional rights of a student who suffered a traumatic brain injury during football practice were not so clearly established by law that the coach or the school district could be held liable.

Updated last June 9, 2017
for the 06/17/2016 decision.
What it does 

This decision found that a student athlete could not hold his high school football coach or school district liable for a concussion he suffered during football practice.

First, this decision held that the coach was immune to liability because, at the time of the injury, the athlete’s right was not so clearly established by law that any reasonable coach would know that he was violating that right. This is a powerful legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity.” 

However, this decision suggested that if the athlete’s right not to suffer a brain injury during practice was more clearly established, then the facts would have overcome the coach’s immunity. The court acknowledged that based on the facts, a hypothetical jury could reasonably find that the coach was responsible for creating a danger of injury to the student athlete. Specifically, the court discussed how the coach had received traumatic brain injury (TBI) training and, therefore, should have recognized a concussion symptom in the Plaintiff, known as a “stinger” (so-called in sports because of a stinging or burning sensation), rather than ordering him to continue practicing and subjecting him to a second hit. The court made it clear that if only there were any previous cases holding a school official liable for an athlete’s brain injury, then it would have taken the question of the coach’s liability to a jury.

Second, the decision held that based on the facts presented, the school district could not be found liable for the student’s injuries under the stringent test of municipal liability. There was no evidence to suggest that the district was deliberately indifferent to the coach’s training or had a custom or practice of ignoring head injuries. The district’s athletic handbook included comprehensive policies for handling injured athletes. Although the policies proved inadequate and ultimately may have contributed to the injury, they were not the ‘moving force’ behind the student’s injury. The ‘moving force’ was the coach. In addition, the court found that plaintiffs could not establish a direct causation link between any inadequate policy (or lack thereof) and the harm suffered by the student – given that they did not provide evidence that the coach believed the student had actually suffered a concussion.     

This decision makes a strong statement that the coach and the school district could have done more to prevent a football player’s TBI. It suggests that a student athlete may have a tenuous Constitutional right to not face a state-created danger of TBI in the context of a school sports program. The decision portends that if such a right becomes more clearly established, then certain facts surrounding a student athlete’s injury might be able to overcome a coach’s qualified immunity and expose the coach to liability.

The facts 

Plaintiff Sheldon Mann, a high school student and football player, suffered traumatic brain injury during practice on November 1, 2011. His coach, Defendant Walkowiak, told him to continue practicing after sustaining a hard hit that caused him to feel dazed, confused, and disoriented. Mann argues that the coach’s instruction to continue practicing after he was hit caused his injury.

Palmerton School District has a district-wide Athletic Handbook, which included a policy for evaluating and medically clearing student athletes following an injury. It provided mandatory procedures for coaches and school medical professionals to follow before allowing an injured student to continue playing. Mann argued that the Handbook was inadequate because it did not specifically address concussions or head injuries, but the court found that the policy was comprehensive enough to cover those types of injuries.

Decision Points 

The court granted summary judgment to Defendant Walkowiak because there is no clearly-established Constitutional right under which Plaintiff could recover, and to Defendant Palmerton Area School district because there is no evidence to suggest municipal liability.  

As to the coach, the court found that Mann had asserted a viable claim against Coach Walkowiak for creating a danger towards Mann. Generally, a state has no affirmative obligation to protect its citizens from the violent acts of individuals. One exception to this rule is if the harm incurred is a direct result of state action, that is, a “state-created danger”. A state-created danger may be established by a four-part test adopted by the Third Circuit:

(1) if the harm was foreseeable and fairly direct;

(2) if the state actor acted with a degree of culpability that “shocks the conscience;”

(3) if the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim by virtue of the relationship between the plaintiff and the state actor; and

(4) the state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created danger or rendered the plaintiff more vulnerable to danger.  

In this case, the court found that, as a state actor in his role of coaching high school football, Coach Walkowiak met all four parts of the tests. (1) The coach had received TBI training and he saw that Mann had been hit hard; (2) after-school practice was not a “hyperpressurized” situation—rather, the coach had time to exercise judgment and take Mann out of practice; (3) Mann was a foreseeable victim because he was a student participating in a school’s football program; and (4) the coach ordered Mann to keep practicing even though Mann appeared disoriented.

State actors such as school athletic coaches are entitled to a defense of qualified immunity as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Because no court has recognized that a coach violated a student athlete’s constitutional rights by failing to take certain precautions, Coach Walkowiak was still entitled to qualified immunity. Although Mann had articulated a viable state-created danger claim against Coach Walkowiak, summary judgment was nonetheless granted in favor of Coach Walkowiak because of his qualified immunity.

As to the school district, the court found that Mann had not asserted evidence that could meet the standard for municipal liability. A municipal employer such as a school district may be held liable if its policies or customs caused a violation of a plaintiff’s rights. These are stringent standards, and Mann did not assert evidence to support his claims that the school’s policies or customs caused his injury. Rather, the court found that the school had a comprehensive Athletic Handbook in place. The court thus granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant school district.

Relevant Science 

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the brain’s normal functioning. A concussion is the mildest and most common form of TBI; other types, such as contusions or penetrations of the skull, can be more severe. TBI can lead to temporary or permanent disability including, but not limited to, impaired thinking, problems of memory and perception, emotional and personality changes, seizures, and/or death. Symptoms of TBI vary widely and can include headache, difficulty thinking clearly, disorientation, dizziness, nausea, etc.

TBI is considered a major public health risk that contributes to up to 30% of annual injury-related deaths in the US. Infants, young adults, military service members, and the elderly have increased risk of TBI. TBI is also particularly common among student athletes and there are a number of initiatives to increase TBI awareness in sports settings. 

The severity of TBI is typically calculated according to the Glasgow Coma Scale (GSC). The brain takes time to heal depending on the severity, and people who have suffered one concussion are at greater risk of suffering future concussions.  Although rare, there is some research about “second impact syndrome” or recurrent TBI, and how multiple head injuries may exacerbate TBI symptoms. This was a key concern in the plaintiff’s argument in this decision.

Where & When 

The District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania decided this case on June 2, 2016.

Relevant Experts 

Dale Bass, PhD, is an Associate Research Professor of Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Director of the Injury and Orthopaedic Biomechanics Laboratory, and a faculty member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

Carrie R. Muh, MD, is a Pediatric Neurosurgeon and an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Duke University Hospital who treats children with a wide range of neurosurgical disorders.

Barry S. Myers, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. He focuses on the biomechanics of head and neck injury with the goal of injury prevention.

Carolyn Pizoli, MD, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics – Neurology at Duke University School of Medicine who focuses on neural network changes after an acquired brain injury.

Status 

An appeal was filed on June 17, 2016 at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Primary Author 
Elizabeth Brown, JD Candidate
Editor(s) 
Juliet Taylor, MA Candidate; Rosa Castro, LLM, PhD, MA
Recommended Citation 

Duke SciPol, “Mann v. Palmerton Area School District” available at http://scipol.duke.edu/content/district-court-middle-district-pennsylvania-rules-coach-and-school%E2%80%99s-liability-student (06/09/2017).

License 
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Please distribute widely but give credit to Duke SciPol and the primary author(s) listed above, linking back to this page if possible.