Court Grants Summary Judgment Ruling in Favor of High School for Athlete Injured During Cross-Country Race

Nov 18, 2022

By Bailey M. Lis, M.S. & Michael S. Carroll, PhD

In September 2016, Christopher Strickland was preparing to represent Northwest Rankin High School in a cross-country meet in Mississippi. Prior to the race, Christopher was stung on the top of his head by a wasp, resulting in a swelling sensation. After telling one of his coaches of the incident, two coaches and a registered nurse examined his head and determined that there was no swelling or any other sign of an adverse reaction to the sting. Christopher did not have any known allergy to insect stings on file with the school. Affidavits submitted by the Rankin County School District (RCSD) also showed that Christopher assured his coaches that he was fine and wanted to run the race anyway. However, Christopher recalled only one coach examining his head and claims that this coach encouraged him to run the race. More than one hour passed, and he ended up running the race.

One of Christopher’s coaches checked on him a mile into the race, at which point Christopher assured her that he was doing fine. However, after he passed the one-mile marker, Christopher said that he began to feel dizzy. He then fell and hit his head. The same nurse that examined his head before the race went to help him along with her husband, a neurologist. They both determined that Christopher was able to recover, so he went back to his teammates. Christopher followed up with a doctor, who found that he had injuries to his brain and spine. Christopher’s father, Christopher Strickland, Sr. (Strickland), sued RCSD on his son’s behalf. In this lawsuit, Strickland alleged that RCSD employees breached their duties in how they acted both after the wasp sting and the subsequent failure to follow the school’s concussion protocol after Christopher’s fall.

Discretionary-Function Immunity 

The defendant, RCSD, is a governmental entity. RCSD filed for summary judgment on the grounds that it qualified for discretionary-function immunity, meaning that the cross-country coaches’ actions, or lack of action, showed that they were exercising a discretionary function, which is required for immunity. Summary judgment motions are filed when the movant argues that no genuine issue of material fact exists in a case, so the movant is thus entitled to judgment as a matter of law and no trial is necessary. The trial court denied this first motion. RCSD amended its motion for summary judgment by declaring that the coaches’ actions in the moment involved policy, and therefore constituted immune discretionary functions.

There is a two-part public-policy function test to determine whether an allegedly tortious activity involves a discretionary function. The two elements that must be present include (a) the action or activity contains an element of choice or judgment; and (b) that choice or judgment must have considerations based on social, economic, or political policy. Before the test is engaged, the court must first identify the allegedly tortious activity. In this case, the coaches’ decision to let Christopher run in the race is the alleged tortious act. Although both parties agree that this decision was a judgment call, Strickland claims that this decision did not involve any policy, and therefore RCSD should not have immunity. This claim was not supported, however, because RCSD was able to argue that the decision did involve a policy consideration. Since the school allowed the coaches to set and conduct activities that are based on policy, the coaches have the ability to set guidelines and make decisions for their teams. RCSD also has a policy for the coaches to be certified in first-aid and to administer first-aid. This requires the coaches to make decisions regarding whether a student can and should continue to participate in their sport after injury. These decisions are anchored in social policy, meaning that discretionary immunity may be granted.

Summary Judgment

When seeking summary judgment, the movant (RCSD) must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact. At the summary judgment hearing, Strickland’s counsel rescinded their claims based on the RCSD employees’ actions after Christopher’s fall. They did not have enough medical evidence to show that RCSD’s alleged failure to follow proper concussion protocols caused his injuries after the fall. Instead, they shifted their focus towards the coaches’ decision to allow Christopher to run the race after being stung by a wasp on the top of his head. They insisted that it was ordinary negligence because they did not exercise the proper level of caution that was necessary.

In this case, RCSD was able to address both of Strickland’s negligence claims regarding the coaches allowing Christopher to run in the race and their allegedly improper deviation from concussion protocol after his fall. RCSD argued that the school district was immune due to the coaches’ actions involving policy and that there was no evidence of actionable negligence against it. The trial court granted RCSD’s motion for summary judgment based on the sense that the coaches did indeed act within their discretion. In doing so, the court determined that summary judgment was appropriate because the coaches’ actions regarding the wasp sting, medical care, and decision to allow Christopher to run in the race exceeded the ordinary care standard.

Negligence Claim

There are four elements required in order to prove negligence: (a) the defending party must owe the plaintiff a duty of care; (b) there must be a breach in that duty; (c) the plaintiff suffered an injury; and (d) causation must be established to show a causal connection between the breach and the injury. While RCSD did owe Christopher a duty of care and he did in fact suffer an injury, Strickland admitted that he could not prove he had suffered additional injury as a result of how the school’s coaches handled Christopher’s fall. The court determined that Strickland did not truly express any breach of duty by RCSD employees at any point in his complaint or in his responses to RCSD’s motions for summary judgment and as such, Strickland was unable to prove negligence by RCSD.

Harmless Error Doctrine

Strickland was only notified that he had to present evidence to prove actionable negligence in one of his two counts, but he was not given the opportunity to prove it. He admitted that he could not prove that that he suffered additional injury as a result of how the school handled his fall. It is necessary that the non-moving party in a case of summary judgment (Strickland) be notified and given ample opportunity to respond to the claim. This is essential to protect the plaintiff’s constitutional right to a trial by jury. If the trial court grants summary judgment on grounds other than what was requested by the moving party (RCSD), then the non-moving party (Strickland) must be notified ahead of time in order to have the opportunity to respond to it. In this case, the court granted summary judgment based on the lack of a negligence claim, not based solely on discretionary-function immunity, as RCSD had asserted. Since the entry of summary judgment took Strickland by surprise, the harmless error doctrine applies. Generally, this means that although the trial court erred in what grounds they determined summary judgment on, the court did so without prejudice, and there was still a fair, although imperfect, trial.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the court ruled that RCSD exceeded the ordinary care standard and therefore was not negligent in their decision to allow Christopher to participate in the cross-country race. RCSD’s actions also qualified for discretionary-function immunity. Upon appeal, after examining the evidence in the light most favorable to Strickland, the court found that the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to RCSD, and the decision was affirmed.

**Case Update

Right before the publication of this article, Strickland petitioned the Supreme Court of Mississippi for a writ of certiorari, which was granted. The Supreme Court found that, while the Appellate Court focused on the debate regarding applicability of the two-part public policy function test as it applied to discretionary-function immunity, it was somewhat a moot point, as a first step in such a case required Strickland to allege a valid tort claim and provide evidence in support of that claim. The court found that Strickland failed to successfully articulate any breach of duty by RCSD employees with respect to the wasp sting and his continuance in the race that proximately caused Christopher’s injuries. Moreover, the Supreme Court found that whatever happened to him during the race was not the result of any tortious activity on the part of RCSD employees. Lacking this crucial element, there is nothing on which to apply the two-part public policy function test with respect to RCSD’s immunity from such liability. As such, the Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in RCSD’s favor.

References

Strickland ex rel. Strickland v. Rankin County School District, No. 2019-CT-01669-SCT (Miss. 2021). Retrieved from https://law.justia.com/cases/mississippi/supreme-court/2022/2019-ct-01669-sct.html

Bailey M. Lis is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Sport Management at Troy University in Troy, Alabama. She earned her Master’s Degree in Sport Administration at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.

Michael S. Carroll is a Full Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. He also serves as Online Program Coordinator for Troy University and works closely with students in the TROY doctoral program.