Personal Injury and the Recklessness Standard Applied to Student Athlete Coach’s Alleged Acts and Omissions
Docket No. A-36-21
Decided October 26, 2022
Submitted by New Jersey Personal Injury Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In a recent published opinion, the Supreme Court of New Jersey determined the standard of care that should apply to a coach’s decision to allow a high school field hockey team to practice in an area adjacent to an ongoing soccer practice.
Plaintiff was a high school senior who played girls’ field hockey for her high school team that was coached by defendant. The school’s athletic director arranges which times the school’s various sports teams get the field after school ends. On September 9, 2015, the girls field hockey team’s practice would begin when the boys’ soccer team’s use of the turf field ended at 3:45 p.m. At 3:00 p.m., Defendant instructed the offensive players on her field hockey team to begin warming up in “the D-zone.” This is an area between the “continuous athletic fields” and the turf field. A few years earlier, a twenty-foot-high ball stopper net was installed at the ends of the turf field to prevent “ball interference” in other areas. While the offensive players on the field hockey team were warming up, at least two soccer balls from the soccer practice landed within the D-zone near the field hockey players.
Since plaintiff was a goalie, she was not partaking in what was going on in the D-zone. She asked her coach/defendant if she can take a shot on net and the coach approved. As plaintiff was going to attempt the shot, an errant soccer ball went over the ball stopper and struck plaintiff in the head, causing the injuries complained of in her lawsuit. Other entities/individuals named in plaintiff’s lawsuit besides her coach include the board of education, the school, and its athletic director.
Plaintiff argued that she sustained injuries through defendants’ alleged failures to supervise; prevent potential and foreseeable dangerous conditions; provide appropriate safeguards; and post suitable warnings of potentially dangerous conditions. Defendants moved for summary judgment at the conclusion of discovery and the trial court granted their motion, reasoning that plaintiff was required to show defendants’ acts or omissions rose at least to the degree of recklessness described in previous precedent cases. In applying that heightened standard, the trial judge determined that the allegations could not support a claim of intentional or reckless conduct and found for the defendants. Plaintiff subsequently appealed.
On appeal, plaintiff contended that the trial court erred in their determination that a recklessness standard applied to defendant/coach’s alleged acts and omissions. The Appellate Court agreed with plaintiff and reversed the trial court’s ruling, reasoning that the precedent case’s recklessness standard was inapplicable because the coach “was not a coparticipant.” The Appellate Court also held that a simple negligence standard applied because plaintiff’s claim was that the coach failed to properly “supervise and oversee the participants of the sport” assigned to her for instruction.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey granted cert and rejected the coach’s argument that she was entitled to the application of a recklessness standard. The Supreme Court ruled that the coach’s acts and omissions alleged here are governed by a simple negligence standard rather than the heightened standard of recklessness. The Court determined that because the coach was not an active participant in the recreational activity at issue, the precedent cases’ defendant cited were inapplicable. There was no allegation the coach utilized a field hockey stick or engaged in the practice with her players when plaintiff’s injury occurred. The Court analogized that the essence of plaintiff’s theory of liability, that her coach chose the wrong place and an unpropitious time to commence practice, is no different than the decisions that might be made by a biology teacher taking a class out to study marine life at the beach. In these and other similar settings, the Court stated, “parents have the right to expect that teachers and coaches will exercise reasonable care when in charge of their children and that courts will not immunize a teacher’s negligence by imposing a higher standard of care.” The Appellate Court’s decision was affirmed.
At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients for appeals for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining to establishing the correct standard of care in a personal injury matter. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation in order for them to receive the most favorable outcome in their case as a result.
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