Appeals Court Affirms School District’s Liability in Premises Liability Action

Oct 24, 2008

A California state appeals court has agreed with a lower court, which found a school district liable for an injury suffered by a student athlete.
The incident in question occurred on November 1, 2001, when plaintiff Jennifer E. Gill was 15 years-old and a sophomore at Redwood High School, which is part of the Tamalpais Union High School District. Gill wanted to be on the Redwood High girls’ junior varsity basketball team. She believed, according to the court, it would make a favorable impression on the team’s coach, and thus improve her chances of making the team, if she attended the “open gyms” held at Redwood High.
For more than five weeks, the open gyms had been conducted inside the school’s gymnasium. However, at the open gym held on the afternoon of November 1, after regular school hours, Gill was participating in basketball drills that were conducted on the outdoor courts at Redwood High. Each of the basketball backboards is attached to the end of two hollow metal poles. The poles are anchored in the ground, on the painted baseline (boundary) of the court. The poles can be covered with pads, and officials at Tamalpais had directed that the outdoor courts were not to be used unless the poles were to be covered with pads, which Tamalpais had in its possession. However, on November 1, the pads were not in use.
That day, Robin Goddard was the Redwood High girls’ basketball coach and the person in charge of the open gym. After stretching and running drills, Goddard directed about two dozen girls present to begin lay-up drills, which led to the incident. As described by Gill, the drill required each girl to run the length of the court while dribbling the ball until she was near the basket, and then launch “a hook shot off one foot.”
The court wrote that “about the third or fourth time Gill approached the basket,” she looked back to see if she had made the shot, and hit the pole. “The collision gave her a ‘cut right underneath my right eyebrow,’ and it was ‘bleeding pretty profusely.’ Stunned and disoriented, Gill was escorted off the court, and over to Coach Goddard, who told Gill to go to ‘the training room’ in the gymnasium ‘to get patched up.’
“When Gill arrived at the training room, she saw it was full, i.e., all of the training tables were occupied, and the trainer, Kendra Jordan, was attending to someone else. Gill told Jordan what had happened. Jordan allegedly directed her toward a wooden counter against the wall and suggested she hop up on the counter.
“Gill got up on the counter, from where she watched Jordan walk into another room. At that point, Gill testified ‘I lost my vision and I said out loud, ‘I don’t feel good. I feel dizzy.’ And that’s all I remember.’ Gill fainted, and fell to the floor on her face. One of her teeth was knocked out, and two others were ‘hanging by a thread.’ All of the teeth were front teeth on Gill’s upper jaw. The school nurse was summoned, examined Gill, and made the decision that the injuries were sufficiently serious to warrant taking Gill to a nearby hospital. Gill needed assistance to stand and walk, and was vomiting and spitting blood as Goddard took her to a hospital.
“Gill spent the night at the hospital. The cut on her face required three stitches, and left a scar. [*9] The tooth that was knocked out is permanently lost; two others were badly damaged and needed root canals to be saved. A bridge was made for the missing tooth, but Gill suffered an allergic reaction to it, and her gums became inflamed as a result. Still, Gill had to live with it for about a year and a half. Gill will need a new bridge every three to five years, unless she gets implants for all three teeth.
“Gill missed attending school for about ten days because she was suffering migraines and toothaches, and because she had constant trips to the dentist. For about six weeks, Gill could not eat any food that required the use of her missing and damaged front teeth. For seven months she could eat only soft foods that did not require use of those teeth. When Gill returned to school, she was still suffering from migraines, and taking pain medication. Her grades suffered, and she was dropped from the basketball team in a publicly humiliating way. She also developed an acute fear of dentists, a fear that required counseling.
Gill sued Tamalpais. In the first cause of action, she alleged general negligence. The trial court granted Tamalpais’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. The second cause of action, which centered on premises liability, made it to a jury. Specifically, she claimed that Tamalpais maintained a dangerous condition of public property.
The evidentiary phase of the trial began on November 3, 2005, and concluded on November 15. The jury returned a special verdict answering special interrogatories. The jury found that Tamalpais did maintain a dangerous condition of property; that Tamalpais had notice of the condition and could have protected against it; that it was reasonably foreseeable the condition would cause harm; and that the condition was “a substantial factor in causing harm” to Gill.
Tamalpais appealed.
The appeals court concluded that “the issues of whether Gill was injured by the dangerous condition of public property and whether Gill was barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk were appropriately decided against Tamalpais.”
Jennifer E. Gill v. Tamalpais Union High School District; Ct. App. Calif., 1st App. Dist., Div. Two; A112705, A112830, A113358; 2008 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3928; 5/14/08


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