A Maryland Court of Special Appeals has affirmed a ruling against a teenager, who was injured in a softball game, and subsequently took the novel legal approach of suing the coach for failing to adequately instruct, the league for not pitting evenly matched teams, and the league for not using proper equipment (breakaway bases).
Tara Kelly was a 13-year-old second baseman on the St. Mark’s Parish softball team when the injury occurred on April 22, 1997. While preparing to tag out an opposing player, who was sliding feet-first into second base, Kelly’s foot got caught between the base and the advancing player. As a result, she suffered a severely fractured ankle. After three surgeries, the plaintiff today suffers intermittent pain and some limitations to her activity because of the injury.
After the injury, Kelly and her parents filed a $10 million lawsuit against St. Joseph’s Parish, (the opposing team); St. Mark’s Parish; Phillip John Welch, manager of the St. Joseph’s team; the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (the Archdiocese); and the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), claiming that she was injured as a result of:
I. “Coaching” failures in training players and coaches to safely execute the slide and tag-out play, and in matching players of uneven skill;
II. Failure to equip the diamond with “breakaway bases” that might have prevented Tara’s injury; and
III. Improper care of Tara in the aftermath of the on-field collision.
The Circuit Court for Prince George’s County granted summary judgment to the defendants, which led to the appeal.
The appeals court began its review of the case by examining the Assumption of the Risk principles and the usual claims that are made to establish liability on the part of a defendant, such as “negligent play,” “negligent supervision,” and “failure to warn.”
“The Kelly’s contend that, even if they assumed the risk of injury resulting from negligent play, they could not have assumed the risk of injury from failing to adequately instruct players and coaches how to avoid this type of sliding injury, failing to match players of similar skill, or failing to use the safer breakaway bases,” wrote the court.
The court noted that Maryland has no reported case law considering a negligent coaching claim. “We see no reason that assumption of the risk principles applicable to negligent play claims should not also apply to negligent coaching claims,” it wrote. Further, it turned to Kahn v. East Side Union High Sch. Dist., 31 Cal. 4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, 32 (Cal. 2003) for guidance. That court held that “the same general standard should apply in cases in which an instructor’s alleged liability rests primarily on a claim that he or she . . . failed to provide adequate instruction or supervision before directing or permitting a student to perform a particular maneuver that has resulted in injury to the student.”
Another instructive case was Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 968, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (N.Y. 1986)(citing Prosser & Keeton, Law of Torts § 68 (5th ed.)(1984); 4 Harper, James & Gray, Torts § 21.1 (2d ed.); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 892). In that case, the New York Court of Appeals “described the general duty for those involved in sporting events, as a limited duty to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.”
Other courts and legal experts have generally concurred that “coaches must be aware of preventable risks to their athletes and they must take measures to properly supervise and care for their players,” but that athletes nevertheless “shoulder a formidable burden in establishing a coach’s negligence in relation to these duties.” Thomas R. Hurst & James M. Knight, Coaches’ Liability for Athlete’s Injuries and Deaths, 13 Seton Hall J. Sports L. 27, 37 (2003)(collecting and discussing cases).
At least one overriding factor in establishing such a claim would have been for the plaintiffs to demonstrate that they were unaware of the dangers of playing softball and more specifically the dangers associated with a tag-out and slide play.
“The summary judgment record here similarly shows that Tara and her parents understood that players trying to reach second base might be sliding toward Tara as she was trying to catch the ball and make the tag,” wrote the court. “Tara acknowledged generally that she was aware that “it was possible that you could get hurt playing the game.” She was a veteran second baseman, having played that and other infield positions for St. Mark’s in previous CYO games. Thus, the slide and tag-out play, and its inherent risk for fielders, had been a routine part of the games that the Kelly’s watched, played, and prepared for.”
In addition, the plaintiff was not able to offer “any evidentiary link showing that her misunderstanding of the rules was directly attributable to one or more of the defendants, rather than to another source (such as herself or her family),” which is “fatal to her inadequate training claims.”
Sound Public Policy
The court expressed reluctance “to lay legal responsibility for an athlete’s failure to understand a particular rule at the cleats of a coach who has offered that athlete time to learn the rule and to ask about it during practice and game situations. Indeed, if coaches and their sponsoring leagues can be held liable for a single player’s unstated misunderstanding of rules governing a complex sport like softball, the type of instructional league that the Kelly’s joined may quickly become a thing of the past.”
The court next turned to the negligent mismatching claim. “The evidence here that there were more skilled and competitive players on St. Joseph’s middle school team was not sufficient, by itself, to raise an inference that these two teams were unreasonably mismatched. We see no other evidence of mismatch in this record.”
Finally, the court addressed the argument around breakaway bases. A plaintiff’s familiarity with a playing field is key factor in such instances. And in this case, “the Kelly’s knew that the field was equipped with stationary bases. Tara routinely played on fields with stationary bases, including the St. Mark’s and St. Joseph’s fields. Daniel Kelly admitted that he had personally installed stationary bases on fields.
“Given the Kelly’s’ experience and knowledge that the fields were equipped with stationary bases, they must have understood that a sliding player could pin Tara’s leg against the base. This was yet another obvious and well known risk inherent in the game.”
In sum, the court affirmed the findings of the lower courts and awarded costs to the defendants. Tara Kelly, et al. v. His eminence, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, catholic archbishop of Washington, and his successors in office, a corporation sole, d/b/a the catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C., et al., No. 2114, September term, 2002
Ct. of Special App. Md., 2/5/04