A Wisconsin state appeals court has affirmed the ruling of a trial court, which found that a football coach was more than 50 percent responsible for an injury he suffered when he was blind-sided during a football game.
The ruling was interesting because the court extended the applicability of the state’s so-called “baseball rule,” which ordinarily only includes spectators, to include coaches.
The incident occurred on a day when six youth football teams were staging an exhibition during halftime of a football game. To facilitate this, the organizers divided the football field into thirds so that three scrimmages could be held at one time. Specifically, the fields ran from sideline to sideline, rather than from end zone to end zone.
Plaintiff Scott Shain, a coach of one of the youth football teams, had his back to one of the makeshift fields, where another game was taking place. The court noted that “there was no space in between the sidelines of the middle field and the fields on either side. As a result, the teams playing on the middle field shared common out-of-bounds lines with the teams playing on either side.
“About halfway into the scrimmage, as Shain watched his team run a play he had called, a player in the game behind him was tackled by another and the two collided with Shain, knocking him down and injuring his knee. At the time of his injury, Shain had coached for about eight years and knew that players commonly are pushed out of bounds at full speed.”
Shain sued the Racine Raiders Football Club, Inc., Racine Youth Sports, Inc., and their insurers. The Raiders moved for summary judgment on grounds that the “’Baseball Rule’ set out in Powless v. Milwaukee County, 6 Wis. 2d 78, 94 N.W.2d 187 (1959), and extended to hockey in Moulas v. PBC Productions, Inc., 213 Wis. 2d 406, 570 N.W.2d 739 (Ct. App. 1997), aff’d per curiam, 217 Wis. 2d 449, 576 N.W.2d 929 (1998), bars recovery for injuries to sports spectators.”
Shain countered that the “Baseball Rule” applies only to spectators and should not be expanded to include coaches. While the court agreed that the underlying facts varied from the aforementioned cases, it found that Shain was more negligent than the defendants as a matter of law, granting the defendants’ motions for summary judgment. Shain, of course, appealed.
Shain’s primary argument was that the defendants failed to comply with the duty owed under WIS. STAT. § 101.11, the safe-place statute, by “negligently organizing and conducting the half-time activities.” Specifically, he suggested “that five yards of sideline would have safely separated the middle scrimmage field where the Badgers played from the sidelines of the games on the adjoining fields. Other than his opinion, Shain submitted no other affidavits or expert opinion on this question.”
During its analysis, the appeals court defined the “Baseball Rule” as follows: “This rule prohibits a spectator who is injured by a flying baseball from making a claim against the team or other responsible parties because he or she knowingly exposes himself or herself to the inherent risks. Powless, 6 Wis. 2d at 84-86; Moulas, 213 Wis. 2d at 418-19. In Powless, a spectator at a major league baseball game was hit in the head by a foul ball. Powless, 6 Wis. 2d at 80. The court held that the nature of the game and the common knowledge of frequent foul balls necessarily showed contributory negligence sufficient to bar recovery. Id. at 85-86. In Moulas, the ‘Baseball Rule’ was expanded to include a spectator at a professional hockey game. Moulas, 213 Wis. 2d at 419. There, recovery was barred to a spectator knocked unconscious by an errant hockey puck because, since the risks associated with hockey should be known to the reasonable person attending a hockey game, and the plaintiff was aware and was warned of the risks, her contributory negligence was deemed at least one percent more than any of the defendants as a matter of law. Id. at 409, 420.”
In the instant case, the appeals court cited the trial court’s finding that “if a spectator is held to know the risks attendant to mere presence at a sporting event, it surely follows that a coach is held to at least a similar standard. In fact, coaching takes the level of involvement a step further because it places the coach immediately adjacent to the field of action and within the zone of danger. As such, the coach is properly held to accept whatever contact is contemplated by the rules and customs of the game, including the appreciation of the attendant risk.”
In a footnote, the appeals court pointed to Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who was injured in a sideline collision during the Penn State versus University of Wisconsin football game.
The appeals reigned in the respondents on one of their arguments, though.
“The respondents say that Shain made a poor choice by coaching on the field of play rather than from a more distant perch such as the regular sidelines of Horlick Field. We disagree. Shain made the right choice. He belonged on the field of play with his players, doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing: teaching, supervising, and calling out plays to his players. But our rejection of this argument does not carry the day for Shain for it remains that he is properly held to appreciate the risk that the game of football carries to all within the zone of danger. A coach for eight years, Shain had seen his ‘fair share’ of youth football games and was fully aware that players run out of bounds, often at full speed. In this particular instance, he knew that a team of 125-pound thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds in full football regalia played directly behind him and could run into him. Shain knew the rules; he knew the game’s unpredictability; he accepted the risk.”
Scott Shain and Patricia Shain et al. v. Racine Raiders Football Club, Inc. et al.; Ct. App. Wisc., Dist. 2; Appeal No. 2005AP3118, 2006 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1097