Court: Coach’s Direction Resulted in Reckless Disregard for Plaintiff

Nov 24, 2017

An Ohio state appeals has reversed a trial court and found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether a middle school football coach’s conduct constituted a reckless disregard for the safety of a plaintiff when he allegedly instructed the sixth-grade student, who had zero weight lifting experience, to “max out” on a 200-pound squat lift, leading to a compression fracture of his spine.
Hayden Lemaster and his family appealed from the judgment of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in, which had granted the motions for summary judgment filed by the defendants – Grove City Christian School (GCCS) and Coach Sean P. Swank (Swank).
In April 2009, Hayden was a sixth-grade student at GCCS. Swank was the head football coach for the middle school football team. On April 9, 2009, Hayden was participating in an out-of-season football conditioning program overseen by Swank. After the main conditioning program was completed, Hayden was performing a squat lift, which involves squatting down while a barbell loaded with weights rests on the shoulders. Hayden weighed approximately 97 pounds. Although the actual weight on the barbell was disputed, the trial court accepted the amount indicated in the complaint—200 pounds total—for purposes of summary judgment. It was also somewhat disputed whether Swank instructed the athletes to “max out”—an attempt to lift their personal maximum weight one time—or the athletes themselves decided on their own to attempt to max out after the main conditioning program was over. Swank denies he told them to max out and claims the athletes decided themselves to do so. Hayden did not indicate whose idea it was in his testimony, but another athlete who was present indicated in a sworn statement that Swank instructed them to max out. “For purposes of a summary judgment motion, the recollection of the other student should have been accepted,” noted the appeals court.
Swank and other students “spotted” Hayden by standing near him to lift the weights off of Hayden if he could not complete the lift. Hayden completed the squat lift unassisted. However, Hayden testified that when the weight came off his back, he felt pain in his spine, felt dizzy, and suffered pain in his legs. Hayden informed Swank that he had hurt his back and Swank told Hayden he did not have to complete a run afterward. However, Hayden decided to run. Hayden then participated in some after-school activities at the school with his family. Hayden later discovered that he had compression fractures of his spine, apparently as a result of the 200 pounds being loaded on his shoulders.
On July 28, 2015, the plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging Swank was liable because he had Hayden perform the squat lift, and GCCS was liable for Swank’s conduct pursuant to respondeat superior. Hayden’s parents alleged claims for loss of consortium. On June 2, 2016, the defendants filed two motions for summary judgment, one relating to Hayden’s claims and one relating to the claims of Hayden’s parents. On July 22, 2016, the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims raised by all parties.
The plaintiffs appealed, alleging the following assignment of error:
“The Trial Court erred in granting summary judgment since there is clearly genuine issues of material fact that Coach Swank’s conduct was a reckless disregard for the safety of others when he intentionally instructed members of the 7th grade football team, including (the plaintiff) to ‘max out’ on the squat lift and/or attempt a squat lift with an excessive amount of weight on the first day of training in the weight room when he knew or had reason to know facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize that his conduct created an unreasonable risk of physical harm. The Trial Court erred in failing to restrict the application reason to know facts, which would lead a reasonable man to realize that his conduct created an unreasonable risk of physical harm.”
The appeals court continued: “Here, the plaintiffs claim Swank acted recklessly when he either observed that some team members were attempting to max out on the squat lift and immediately joined in by spotting the lifters and encouraging them to make the lift, or when he instructed the boys to max out. The plaintiffs contend that Swank was actively involved and placed a dangerous amount of weight on Hayden’s neck, placing enormous pressure on his young spine, when Hayden had no experience in lifting weights. The plaintiffs point out that Swank agreed in his deposition that kids who engage in heavy weightlifting are at risk of injuring their growing bones, muscles, and joints. Swank also claimed to be an expert in weight lifting.
“In support of their claims, the plaintiffs cite Sicard v. Univ. of Dayton, 104 Ohio App.3d 27, 660 N.E.2d 1241 (2d Dist.1995). In Sicard, the plaintiff was a college basketball player performing a bench press and was injured when two spotters failed to prevent the weight from striking the plaintiff, and a third spotter failed to spot him at all. The appellate court found the trial court erred when it granted summary judgment to the defendants. The plaintiffs in the present case claim Sicard is analogous to the current case.
“After a review of the evidence in the present case, we find the trial court erred when it found the plaintiffs failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact. The plaintiffs have showed that Swank who claimed to be an expert as to weight lifting exhibited a conscious disregard of or indifference to a known or obvious risk of harm to Hayden that was unreasonable under the circumstances and was substantially greater than negligent conduct.
“Hayden weighed less than 100 pounds. He was loaded with a weight over twice that amount. He was not experienced in weight training. He was only twelve-years old. He could rely on his coach as a person in authority and a person who claimed expertise in weight lifting to exercise good judgment in the exercises and weights his coach was supervising. The fact that Hayden suffered a compression fracture of his spine is a strong indication that too much weight was loaded on his neck and shoulders.
“A jury could reasonably find that loading 200 pounds on a sixth grader’s back and neck resulting in a compression fracture was reckless.”
Hayden Lemaster et al. v. Grove City Christian School et al.; Ct. App. Ohio, 10th App. Dist.; No. 16AP-587, 2017-Ohio-8459; 2017 Ohio App. LEXIS 4858; 11/7/17
Attorneys of Record: (for appellants) Brian Harter. (for appellees) Weston Hurd LLP, W. Charles Curley and Kaitlin L. Madigan.


Articles in Current Issue