A federal judge from the Middle District of Pennsylvania has granted a cheerleading coach’s motion for summary judgment in a case in which she was sued by a cheerleader, who suffered multiple concussions under her watch.
In so ruling, the court determined that because the coach could not have foreseen the injury, the coach’s actions did not cross the necessary threshold, or exhibit “a degree of culpability that shock the conscience.”
Describing the factual scenario as “tragic,” the court noted that, in September 2014, plaintiff R.B. was a member of a non-competitive cheerleading squad sponsored by Danville Area High School. During that membership, R.B. was supervised and coached by the individual defendant Jennifer Enterline, who had been appointed as a cheerleading coach by the school board in March 2014. Prior to this appointment beginning in the fall of 2014, Enterline had never before served as a cheerleading coach.
While under the tutelage of Enterline, R.B. suffered the three injuries to her head, which form the basis of this suit. On Sept. 10, 2014, R.B. was injured twice during cheerleading practice. The first injury occurred when R.B. threw another cheerleader into the air and the other cheerleader’s feet struck her in her sternum. The impact caused R.B. to fall to the ground and hit the back of her head on the mat. She suffered immediate symptoms of dizziness, fogginess, headache pain, and being tired. Enterline failed to notify R.B.’s parents or have her assessed by a trainer, and affirmatively returned R.B. to practice.
R.B. then suffered a second head injury on Sept. 10, 2014. Specifically, when another cheerleader sat on top of R.B.’s head during stunting practice, both she and R.B. fell to the ground. R.B.’s symptoms of dizziness, fogginess, headache pain, and being tired stemming from her previous injury increased. R.B. alleged, however, that Enterline again failed to notify R.B.’s parents or have her assessed by a trainer.
The following day, on Sept. 11, 2014, R.B. suffered her third and final injury under the supervision of Enterline when another cheerleader kicked her on the left side of the jaw. The impact of this kick caused R.B.’s head to move in a whiplash-like manner and forced her to lose consciousness. During both this and her injuries of the prior day, R.B. alleges that she suffered “concussion-like symptoms” in open view of Enterline. The next day, Sept. 12, 2014, R.B. had difficulty comprehending information and felt “as if she was going to fall over.” Her mother took her to the hospital for evaluation, and she was diagnosed with numerous serious and permanent bodily injuries stemming from her repeated injuries on Sept. 10-11, 2014.
In her lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged (1) negligence, (2) a claim for violation of R.B.’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights to life, liberty, and bodily integrity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Section 1983), and (3) a Section 1983 state created danger claim pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment.
Shortly thereafter, the defendant moved to dismiss, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).
The court first considered the negligence claim and Enterline’s claim that she is immune under Pennsylvania’s Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.
This Act specifies that local agencies and their employees are liable only for negligent acts that fall into one of the following categories: (i) vehicle liability; (ii) care, custody, or control of personal property; (iii) care, custody, or control of real property; (iv) dangerous conditions of trees, traffic controls, or street lights; (v) dangerous conditions of utility services facilities; (vi) dangerous conditions of streets; (vii) dangerous conditions of sidewalks; and (viii) care, custody, or control of animals. Importantly, courts extending this immunity have applied it to negligence claims against coaches for injuries to student-athletes.
“R.B. fails to allege facts bringing Enterline’s conduct within one of the enumerated exceptions to the immunity statute,” wrote the court. “Rather, R.B. attempts to circumvent this statute entirely by arguing that the Safety in Youth Sports Act (SYSA) in some way abrogates the afforded immunity. This argument concerning the interplay between SYSA and the Tort Claims Act was addressed … in M.U. v. Downingtown High School East.”
The court disagreed with the plaintiff, noting that M.U. holds that while SYSA may extend immunity to those who are not otherwise immune, “it cannot abrogate immunity for those covered by the Tort Claims Act.” It thus dismissed the negligence claim
Turning to the Section 1983 claim, the court noted that to be successful, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: “(1) the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) the conduct deprived the complainant of rights secured under the Constitution or federal law.”
The court noted that R.B. alleges “both a violation of her right to bodily integrity and a violation based on the state created danger doctrine in contravention of her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
To prove a claim under the doctrine, the plaintiff, according to the court, “must plausibly allege four elements: (1) the harm to her was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience; (3) a relationship existed such that she was a foreseeable victim of the state’s acts, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state’s actions, as opposed to a member of the public in general; and (4) a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to R.B. or that rendered her more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.”
Right off the bat, the plaintiff failed to allege that her harm resulting from repeated concussions was “foreseeable and fairly direct,” according to the court. The “foreseeability” was missing.
“There are no factual allegations which establish that R.B. affirmatively informed Enterline of her injuries on Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, 2014, or that Enterline knew of any restrictions on R.B.’s participation,” wrote the court. “Enterline was not therefore on plausible notice of the concrete risk that a sufficiently serious injury would result to R.B. from repeated head injuries.”
Turning to the second element, the court zeroed in on “the absence of facts demonstrating actual knowledge by Enterline of a risk of harm from R.B.’s continued stunting injuries on Sept. 10 and 11, 2014. Rather, the only allegations intimating actual knowledge are conclusory in nature and thus are not entitled to an ‘assumption of truth.’
Even so, R.B. could still establish that Enterline’s conduct “shocks the conscience” if “the risk is so obvious that it should be known.” The factual allegations of R.B.’s Complaint, taken as true, fail to demonstrate such a risk, according to the court.
R.B., a minor, by her parent and natural Guardian Kyle Hickey, in her own right v. Jennifer Enterline; M.D. Pa.; No. 4:16-CV-01583, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89998/ 6/12/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Jeffrey P. Fritz, LEAD ATTORNEY, Soloff Zervanos, PC, Philadelphia, PA. (for defendant) Charles E. Haddick, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Christine L. Line, Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C., Camp Hill, PA.