Court Makes Distinction with Regard to What Is an Athletic Contest

Jun 17, 2011

An Oklahoma state appeals court has reversed a lower court, which erred when it extended governmental immunity to a school district after it was sued because of an accident in a weightlifting class.
In essence, the school district is only entitled to such immunity if the injury occurs during an athletic content.
The injury occurred when the student, T.A.H., was required to attempt a maximum lift for a weightlifting exercise known as a “squat,” which would account for a portion of his overall grade. The weightlifting teacher had recorded a “max” for each student at the beginning of the nine-week grading block, and, at the end of the nine-weeks, each student was expected to increase his/her maximum lift. The student was injured when he collapsed while attempting a maximum squat at the end of a nine-week grading block. Although he was attempting to squat 240 pounds to exceed his own previous maximum lift in order to “make sure to pass the class,” he was neither competing against other students nor practicing for a future competition against other students.
The student’s mother, Gay A. Hutts, sued, alleging that Western Heights was negligent, pursuant to the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act.
On May 19, 2010, Western Heights filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, prompting the appeal.
The key question on appeal was whether the plaintiff was practicing for or participating in an interscholastic athletic event, or trying to satisfy a physical education requirement, “wherein each student attempts to lift more than he/she lifted earlier in the school year, but not in competition with one another.”
The court concluded the latter. In making that determination, it was guided by two Oklahoma Supreme Court decisions.
“In Curtis v. Board of Education of Sayre Public Schools, 1995 OK 119, 914 P.2d 656, the injured party was a 12-year-old boy who was participating in a softball game during a physical education class. He was instructed by his teacher to play the position of catcher, but he was not provided with a catcher’s mask. He was injured thereafter when he was hit in the mouth by a baseball bat,” wrote the court.
“The issue presented to the Oklahoma Supreme Court was whether §155(20) provided governmental immunity for school-sponsored athletic contests which were not interscholastic athletic contests. The Court held that the exemption did bar the action, because, although the law had originally only applied to injuries sustained in interscholastic contests (such as between two high school football teams), the legislature had amended the provision to apply also to ‘other athletic contest[s].’ Id. at ¶ 9, 914 P.2d at 659.5 The Court held that HN3§ 155(20) ‘encompasses participation in or practice for any athletic or sports competition where participants strive for superiority or victory, whether interscholastic or not, sponsored or conducted by or on the property of the state or political subdivision.’ Id. at ¶ 13, 914 P.2d at 660 (emphasis added). Importantly, the Court adopted the following definitions:
“The word ‘athletic’ is defined as ‘of, pertaining to, or befitting athletics or athletes.’ The American Heritage Dictionary [2nd College ed. 1985] at 138. ‘Athletics’ is defined as ‘athletic activities, as competitive sports’ or ‘the principles or system of athletic exercises and training,’ while the word ‘athlete’ is primarily defined as ‘one who takes part in competitive sports.’ Id. The word ‘contest’ is defined as ‘a struggle for superiority or victory between rivals’ or ‘a competition . . . .’ Id. at 316.
Id. at ¶ 12, 914 P.2d at 659. The Court then stated:
“Applying the above definitions to the facts of this case, we conclude that the phrase ‘athletic contest’ is sufficiently broad to encompass a physical education class softball game. Clearly, softball is a competitive sport where participant/team members strive to defeat an opposing team. Id.”
The court then turned to the second case — Evans v. Oaks Mission Public School, 1997 OK 97, 945 P.2d 492. In Evans, “the injured party was a high school student who injured his shoulder in a wrestling match during a physical education class. The student had previously played in interscholastic team sports at his school, but twice injured his shoulder, once during football practice and the other time during a pick-up basketball game. At the direction of his parents, the young man was to ‘sit out’ his junior year in order to return to team sports his senior year. However, he enrolled in a physical education class with his parents’ knowledge. The Oklahoma Supreme Court found that the case was controlled by Curtis. The Court ruled that § 155(20) did bar the action to recover for the student’s injury because it was unrefuted ‘(1) that the injury . . . occurred while the student was participating in a wrestling match, an athletic contest, during his physical education class, and (2) that the injury occurred on school property.’ Id. at ¶ 9, 945 P.2d at 494.”
The instant case is similar to Curtis and Evans because the student was injured during a physical education (i.e., weightlifting) class, and the injury occurred on school property.
“However, we must determine whether the athletic activity Student was participating in at the time of his injury constitutes an ‘athletic contest’ pursuant to § 155(20). Hutts argues that because Student was not participating in (or practicing for) an athletic competition with opposing sides or teams striving for victory over one another, such as wrestling (as in Evans) or softball (as in Curtis), that Student was not participating in any ‘athletic contest’ pursuant to § 155(20). We agree.
“Student was not striving for victory or superiority over another classmate or classmates as in wrestling or softball, Student was not participating as part of a ‘powerlifting’ team, and Student was not practicing for any future athletic competition. Instead, Student was attempting to increase his personal ‘maximum lift.’ As quoted above, the Oklahoma Supreme Court in Curtis adopted a definition of ‘contest’ requiring ‘a struggle for superiority or victory between rivals’ or ‘a competition . . . .’ Curtis at ¶ 12, 914 P.2d at 659 (emphasis added). Pursuant to this definition, the Court concluded that participation in a game of softball constitutes participation in an athletic contest because “softball is a competitive sport where participant/team members strive to defeat an opposing team.” Id.
“Although Student was participating in a weightlifting exercise wherein he and his fellow students were striving to exceed past performances to attain new and superior personal bests, there was no competition between the students as occurred in Evans (wrestling) and Curtis (softball). Moreover, although § 155(20) applies where a student is ‘practicing for’ an ‘athletic contest,’ it is undisputed that Student was not doing so. Therefore, we are constrained to find that Student was not practicing for or participating in an ‘athletic contest’ as that term is defined in Curtis, and as it is applied in both Curtis and Evans. We decline to broaden the scope of § 155(20) beyond that delineated by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.”
Gay A. Hutts v. Western Heights Independent School District NO. 1-41 of Oklahoma County; Ct. of Civil App. Of Oklahoma; Case Number: 108785, 2011 OK CIV APP 52; 2011 Okla. Civ. App. LEXIS 26; 4/22/11
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff/appellant) Thomas Rowe Kendrick, Timothy L. Martin, LOONEY, NICHOLS & JOHNSON, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (for defendant/appellee) Lance C. Cook, Brock C. Bowers, Michael W. Brewer, HILTGEN & BREWER, P.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.


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