Student-athletes who are injured in practice have limited legal recourse against their fellow participants unless they she can show that the other participants, whether players or coaches, acted in a reckless fashion, an Indiana Appeals Court has held.
The impetus for the holding was an incident that occurred on February 5, 2000 during a baseball practice involving the Tri-State University baseball team.
William Geiersbach, the plaintiff, was participating in a drill organized by head coach Dave Wagner and led by assistant coach Josh Wagner. The drill called for two balls to be in play at one time. However, there was a miscommunication and Geiersbach’s teammate Robert Frieje, the catcher, hit Geiersbach in the eye with the ball, causing a serious and permanent eye injury.
Geiersbach sued Tri-State, Dave, Josh, and Frieje, alleging negligence and breach of duty. The defendants moved for summary judgment and the courts granted their motions, spawning the present appeal.
The plaintiff argued that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether any of the parties breached a duty owed to him. Specifically, Geiersbach focused on a state supreme court decision, Beckett v. Clinton Prairie Sch. Corp. 504 N.E.2d 552 (Ind. 1987), which held that “high school personnel had a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care for the safety of the children under their authority.”
While the plaintiff recognized the Beckett, does “not readily transfer to the university setting,” he did argue “that a trend is developing among courts to find a ‘special’ relationship between colleges or universities and their student-athletes.”
As support, Geiersbach pointed to Kleinknecht v. Gettysburg College, 989 F.2d 1360 (3d Cir. 1993), in which the parents of a deceased college lacrosse player brought suit against the college for negligence and breach of duty. The parents were successful in demonstrating that the college was negligent because it did not provide adequate medical staff at its practice.
In another case, Davidson v. Univ. of N. Carolina at Chapel Hill, 142 N.C. App. 544, 543 S.E.2d 920 (N.C. App. 2001), a North Carolina court held that the university owed a duty of care to a cheerleader who had been injured during practice.
Geiersbach also cited two Indiana cases, that while not as on point as the previous two, did hint an imposition of duty on colleges and universities with regard to student-athletes. In Knapp v. Northwestern Univ., 101 F.3d 473 (7th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1274, 117 S. Ct. 2454, 138 L. Ed. 2d 212 (1997), a student who had been barred from participating in intercollegiate basketball because of his heart defect filed an action against the university he attended. The panel of judges at the 7th Circuit held that medical determinations should be left to universities and colleges, as long as “they are made with reason and rationality and with full regard to possible and reasonable accommodations.”
The other state case was Clark v. Wiegand, 617 N.E.2d 916 (Ind. 1993), in which a judo student was injured by a co-participant during a class at Indiana State University. “Significantly, the student had spoken to her instructor regarding a particular student who threw her to the mat too hard during class. After she was subsequently injured by the same student, she brought suit against the instructor.” The notice influenced the court to require that a jury decide “whether the student had incurred risk so as to bar recovery was a question for the jury.”
In reviewing the plaintiff’s argument, the court leaned toward the realization that there is an inherent danger in playing baseball. It noted that in Kleinknecht, “the lack of medical staff is not an inherent danger of playing lacrosse, so the court properly allowed the suit to continue on a breach of duty claim. Similarly, in Clark, the court opined that had the judo student “merely been injured in the class, there may have been no liability on the part of the classmate or the instructor.” The instructor’s failure to act, however, “could reasonably be found sufficiently reckless as to deny the defendants’ motion for judgment on the evidence.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the court cited Mark v. Moser, 746 N.E.2d 410 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), as an example of where the inherent danger in a sport, absent a reckless action, can deflate a claim. In that case, a cyclist in a triathlon cut off another participant, causing severe injury to the participant. That court held that “a participant does not owe a duty to fellow participants to refrain from conduct which is inherent and foreseeable in the play of the game even though such conduct may be negligent and may result in injury absent evidence that the other participant either intentionally caused injury or engaged in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport.”
It further identified the “primary assumption of risk” as a situation in which an individual, “by voluntarily engaging in an activity, consents to those risks that are inherent in and arise by virtue of the nature of the activity itself. In such cases, the participant is owed no duty with regard to such inherent and ordinary risks.” Gyuriak v. Millice, 775 N.E.2d 391 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001).
In looking specifically at whether participants in such a case should be held liable, the present court wrote that “those participating in the event or practice should be precluded from recovering for injuries received resulting from dangers or conduct inherent in the game unless they prove that the conduct was reckless or the injury was intentional. This falls in line with the reasoning behind Mark and Gyuriak where co-participants were injured. Such a danger is inherent in the game and the participant should not be able to recover from the player, team, or stadium without proving recklessness or that the injury was somehow intentional.”
Applying this to the instant case, the court wrote that “without evidence that Frieje acted intentionally, maliciously, or recklessly, we hold that the trial court correctly granted Frieje’s Motion for Summary Judgment.”
Turning to the appeal of the summary judgment motion on behalf of the coaches and university, the court wrote that the plaintiff had not proven that the coaches “intended to injure him or that the behavior was malicious. So, the question becomes whether the practice involved reckless behavior.
“Geiersbach contends that the coaches were reckless because the chosen practice drill could potentially put two balls into play. However, this seems to contradict Geiersbach’s admission that the injury was accidental. Although two balls were being used, this was a drill which the team had used before and which was not uncommon in baseball practices. Being hit by a ball during a practice (or during a game) is an inherent danger in baseball and we do not believe that Geiersbach has proven that the coaches acted recklessly.”
Turning to the university, the court noted that the plaintiff does not make a direct claim against Tri-State. “Rather, he claims only that Dave and Josh were acting as agents of Tri-State and that the university is vicariously liable for their actions.” Thus, a decision favoring the coaches also favors the university. The appeals court affirmed the respective motions for summary judgment brought by the coaches for summary judgment. William M. Geiersbach, Jr. V. Robert Frieje et al., No. 76A03-0309-CV-371
Ct. App. Ind. 3rd Dist., 4/28/04
Attorneys of Record: (for appellant) John D. Boren of Boren, Oliver & Coffey, Martinsville, Indiana; (for appellee) Donna H. Fisher of Smith, Fisher, Maas & Howard Indianapolis, Indiana.