Making Mistakes And Minor Blunders
How well does each state protect volunteer youth-sports coaches?
Editor’s Note: The information provided is intended to be purely educational and in no way constitutes legal advice. Contact a licensed attorney in your state for specific questions regarding the applicability of laws in your area.
By David A. Feigley, Jason Henderson, and Louis Bensinger
“Volunteer to coach? OK, I said ‘yes’ but now what? I played a little sport myself, but never coached before. What exactly am I supposed to do? What if I make a mistake? Could I be sued?” These thoughts and others like them cross the minds of potential youth-sports coaches every year. Some may not realize that many states have granted legal protections in an effort to protect one of the nation’s greatest resources—volunteers. Without volunteer coaches, many opportunities and community services would be unavailable or too expensive for deserving youngsters.
During the 1980s, many state legislatures responded to the liability crisis and soaring liability insurance costs by enacting civil-immunity legislation—laws that protect individuals and agencies from lawsuits. These individuals or agencies include volunteer coaches, general community volunteers, emergency-care providers, and volunteers for policy-making groups such as boards of directors. In this article, only legislation pertaining to volunteer coaches—either directly or indirectly—is discussed.
On May 12, 1986, New Jersey became the first state to enact civil-immunity legislation protecting volunteer athletic coaches, managers, and officials. This legislation, commonly referred to as the “Little League Law,” provides partial—but significant—protection from lawsuits for coaches who have attended a “safety orientation and training skills program.” The Youth Sports Research Council of Rutgers University and the New Jersey Recreation and Park Association have combined efforts to jointly offer The Rutgers SAFETY Clinic, which provides coaches with the necessary training required by the state to warrant civil immunity. Despite New Jersey serving as a model for developing protective liability legislation, other states have varied substantially in how they deliver civil immunity.
Civil-immunity legislation falls into two basic categories: First is legislation that protects volunteers in general—both sport and non-sport volunteers (e.g., Maryland). Second is legislation that specifically protects volunteer youth-sports coaches. Such legislation sometimes provides blanket protection, i.e., protection for all volunteer coaches (e.g., Pennsylvania, Delaware). Sometimes such legislation requires action on the part of the volunteer coach to earn the liability protection; i.e., coaches must first take some type of training (e.g., Alabama, New Hampshire, New Jersey) or maintain a minimum level of liability insurance (e.g., Maryland).
What Constitutes Negligence?
Negligence occurs when four conditions exist simultaneously.
1. A coach or a sports organization must have a duty—i.e., a formal obligation—to provide for the safety and welfare of the injured participant. For example, both a paid professional coach and a volunteer coach have a responsibility to provide adequate first-aid and emergency care for any athlete who might sustain an injury. On the other hand, a spectator—even a spectator trained in first aid and CPR—is not likely to be held responsible for handling emergencies observed on the sports field. The spectator has no duty.
2. The coach or organization must commit a breach by either an act of commission or an act of omission. Commission is an act likely to cause harm, such as teaching a young football player to tackle opponents by “spearing” (using the head as a battering ram). Omission is failing to do something to protect the athlete that any reasonably prudent coach would be expected to do, such as failing to require young soccer players to use shin guards when scrimmaging. For a breach to occur, the risk and/or the injury must be foreseeable. That is, coaches, in the normal function of their duties, must be judged to reasonably have been able to predict or foresee the hazard that caused the injury. No one can foresee the occurrence of a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. On the other hand, a lightning bolt is very foreseeable when clouds are dark, thunder is heard, or lightning has just been seen in the vicinity of the field.
3. The actions or inactions of the coach or organization must be shown to have caused or further aggravated the injury or loss in question—a condition known as proximate cause. For example, a coach who issues instructions to run full speed to a wall, touch the wall, and then run back to the starting position might well be judged to have issued instructions that “caused” an injury should the athlete fail to slow sufficiently, trip, and fall against the wall, sustaining an injury.
4. The victim must have experienced an actual loss or injury. That is, physical, psychological, or financial damage must have occurred.
Levels of Culpability
When a loss is incurred, courts distinguish between different levels of culpability. State laws vary substantially in terms of the degree of civil-immunity protections provided. States that exempt coaches from simple negligence typically hold them responsible for more serious levels of responsibility, such as gross negligence, wanton and willful behavior, and intentional acts.
1. Simple negligence occurs when the coach has a duty, makes a mistake of omission or commission that contributes to a loss that was foreseeable by a reasonably prudent person. A person or organization would be held accountable at the level of simple negligence when they should have been aware of the risk but were not. Examples include failing to inspect the playing field for obstacles prior to sporting events or knowingly permitting an athlete to practice or compete without wearing required safety equipment, such as a catcher’s face mask in baseball or shin guards in soccer.
2. Gross negligence is a more serious offense and shows an absence of even a slight amount of diligence or care, circumstances often described as indifference. An example might be that, despite being told about a defect in equipment, the coach still ignores that defect when a reasonable person could clearly foresee that failure to correct the defect could lead to serious injury.
3. Recklessness involves behaviors that are wanton and willful, where the individual knowingly disregards an unreasonable degree of risk. That person would be considered reckless if aware of the risk but does it anyway, despite not intending for anyone to get hurt. An example might be an injury resulting from coaching under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
4. Intentional acts involve specifically aiming to hurt someone, such as purposely instructing a player to “take out” an opponent, resulting in severe injuries to either or both of the athletes. Such intentional acts are rarely, if ever, protected by liability laws and, further, most insurance policies specifically exempt such intentional acts under the organization’s liability insurance coverage.
Most of the existing state laws typically protect volunteer youth-sports coaches from simple negligence. A significant number go further and protect gross negligence. Few protect coaches at the level of recklessness, and virtually none protect—nor should they protect—against intentional acts. Youth-sports administrators should be aware of the extent of, or lack of, civil-immunity protections in their state and the requirements such as training, which is required before the state bestows civil-immunity protections. Table 1 indicates the level of civil-immunity protection each state provides to volunteers, including but not limited to youth-sports coaches.
Below is a more detailed, yet brief overview of New Jersey’s civil-immunity legislation pertaining to volunteer youth-sports coaches. To obtain a similar overview specific to your state’s civil-immunity legislation as well as additional information concerning your state’s stipulations for coverage, please visit the Rutgers Youth Sports Research Council’s webpage at https://youthsports.rutgers.edu/sports-law/research for a directory of existing state-by-state liability legislation.
New Jersey (N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6, et seq. Year 1986)
Commonly known as New Jersey’s “Little League Law.”
1. “Safety-trained” volunteer athletic coaches, managers, and officials
2. Nonprofits, county, or municipal recreation programs.
DOES NOT PROTECT:
1. Negligent operation of a motor vehicle
2. Failure to supervise
3. Private or public school coaches
4. Willful, wanton or grossly negligent act of commission or omission.
L.1986, c.13; 1988, c.87, s.1, s.1
David A. Feigley, Ph.D., Jason Henderson, J.D., and Louis Bensinger, B.S. are members of the Rutgers Youth Sports Research Council. For more information, visit https://youthsports.rutgers.edu/.