Court Grants Summary Judgment for Athletic Director, School President

Apr 21, 2006

In a case involving a college student who was hit by a batted baseball, a New Jersey state judge has granted a motion to dismiss filed on behalf of an athletic director and university president, while denying the same motion as it related to the head coach and assistant coach in the case.
Specifically, the court found that the athletic director’s conduct did not rise to the requisite level of “recklessness” and that the president was sufficiently “removed” from any liability.
The impetus for the litigation was an incident on Oct. 3, 2000, when Andrew Zides, a student at Quinnipiac University, was pitching batting practice to the university’s baseball team. Pitching from behind an “L-screen,” he was hit by a batted ball that passed through the screen and struck his face, seriously injuring him. Zides sued, claiming the screen was defective, and that various defendants, including Assistant Baseball Coach Timothy Belcher, School President John L. Leahy and Athletic Director Jack McDonald negligently permitted the use of the screen.
The defendants moved to dismiss, bringing the argument before the court.
The judge began his analysis of counts eight and nine against the assistant baseball coach by noting that “it could not find any Connecticut cases dealing directly with the issue of school liability due to defective or absent equipment, which result in accidents at sporting events.
“But cases from other jurisdictions support a finding of liability under such circumstances, see for example Leahy v. School Bd. Of Hernando City, 450 So. 2d 883, 885 (Fla.App. 1984); Everett v. Bucky Warren, Inc., 376 Mass. 280, 380 N.E.2d 653, 658 (Mass 1978); Bernan by Berman v. Phil Bd. Of Education, 310 Pa. Super. 153, 456 A.2d 545, 549 (Pa.Sup. 1983).”
Part of the defendants’ argument on this point was that Belcher was not present on the date of the injury and that he did not have control of the equipment used on the day of the injury.
“The problem with this position,” wrote the court, “lies in the deposition testimony of Seth Lavigne who said the netting of the L-screen presented ongoing problems for days before the October 3rd incident. So the fact that Belcher was not present October 3rd is not controlling especially in light of the fact that he was present for fifty percent of the practice sessions that baseball season.
“Also in his affidavit Belcher did not explicitly say he had no authority to bar the use of equipment he found to be defective or had no responsibility to bring such a situation to the coach’s attention–that would be an odd stance for a coach to take even if he or she was an assistant coach.”
The court concluded that there were disputed issues of material fact and denied the motion for summary judgment as it related to the assistant coach.
Claim of Recklessness Against the Athletic Director
“The problem with the recklessness claim here is that there is nothing that has been presented by the plaintiff to transform any of his factual allegations from simple negligence to recklessness,” wrote the court. “To be reckless ‘the actor must know or have reason to know the facts which create the risk’ supra, comment (a) to Restatement; the actor must intentionally do an unreasonable act ‘in disregard of a known or obvious risk,’ Prosser, page 213. There must be a ‘state of consciousness with reference to the consequences of one’s acts,’ Dubay id., p. 532. There is an absence of any deposition or other testimony that McDonald knew of the actual condition of the L-screen on the date of the accident or before it happened. Weekly meetings were held by him with all the coaches but there is no indication that the condition of equipment or need to replace it was brought to his attention. The university response to interrogatories was that he was not involved with the purchase of equipment.
“Even assuming rules and procedures were not instituted to require inspection of and replacement of equipment, or long periods of time were allowed to pass without the repair of equipment, or any other of the rules or directives alleged were not instituted, how is this anything more than inattentiveness to what might be the requirements of an athletic director’s job.
“Perhaps more to the point coaches such as (Joe) Mattei were in charge of college teams such as baseball. He had been an assistant baseball coach from 1990 to 1995, head coach for five years before the October 2000 accident. He was a member of three professional coaching organizations all of which provided coaching and workshops. He had attended clinics and workshops on coaching at high school and colleges including national conventions. He had coached baseball for 44 years upon his 2001 retirement. He attended a coaching certification course.
“Given this background it is difficult to understand how failure to issue directives and rules to this particular coach could be reckless–it would seem to the court at least that an athletic director should be able to rely on an experienced coach taking common sense measures to protect athletes from harm due to defective equipment and any claim of unreasonableness in failing to formulate the rules suggested to ensure such measures are being taken cannot be described as anything more than inattention. They certainly do not indicate a reckless state of consciousness with reference to the possible consequences of this defendant’s acts or failures to act.
“Furthermore, Mattei in sworn responses to interrogatories said he repaired the equipment himself. He also said prior to the October 2000 accident he noticed no defects in the L-screen. Thus, any reporting requirement would not have led to information McDonald could have acted upon. Finally the court would observe that it is not enough to argue that whether recklessness occurred here is something that should be determined by the jury. Summary judgment has often been said to be difficult to appropriately grant in negligence cases. But this is a claim of recklessness and in Dubay itself the court upheld the granting of summary judgment as to a recklessness claim. Each side has presented facts to support its position and the court, if faced with these same facts at a trial would grant a directed verdict on a recklessness claim or perhaps more realistically would take it out of consideration at a charging conference.
Thus, the court granted the motion to dismiss as it related to the athletic director.
Lastly, the court turned to the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff’s claim that the university president had a special relationship and, thus, a liability had already been resolved.
In its complaint, the plaintiff alleged that Lahey (1) failed to supervise college employees, Mattei the head coach, assistant coaches Manzo and Belcher and the athletic director McDonald and (2) failed to institute procedures, directives, rules and/or regulations which would prohibit college employees including those just mentioned from allowing individuals to participate in baseball practice when said individuals were not on the college baseball team.
The court pointed, specifically, to Larson v. Indep. School District No. 314, 289 N.W.2d 112 (Minn. 1979) as a case that offers “an interesting analysis of the problems before the court and is cited in the 14 COA article. There a student was injured while performing a gymnastic maneuver in a physical education class. The teacher running the class and the principal were sued and held liable. The school superintendent was also sued but not held liable.”
That court found that the superintendent was a level removed from these responsibilities.
“In this case Lahey is really like the superintendent as to the nature or existence of any ‘duty’ he might have toward students. No specific directives have been brought to the court’s attention which required or even should be expected to require Lahey himself to develop detailed and specific regulations for every college sport or even every academic and non-academic activity going on in a large university with numerous departments and separate operations. That responsibility is best exercised by heads of different departments or activities such as for athletics, Mr. McDonald.
“As the Larson court said of the superintendent there, Lahey here ‘was a level removed from these responsibilities’ (which should have been exercised by the coaches and the athletic director). The court will dismiss the count against Mr. Lahey.”
Andrew Zides et al. v. Quinnipiac University d/b/a Quinnipiac College et al.; Conn.S.Ct.; CV020470131S; 2/7/06


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