By Eugene Egdorf and Jim Hartle, of Shrader & Associates
The NCAA was founded in 1906 to improve safety in college sports. Since then, it has sat as supervisor and sponsor of college sports, from football to tennis to track & field. The NCAA has taken its supervisory role so far as to regulate the foods that colleges can give their players to eat.
In its more traditional supervisory role, the NCAA recognizes that field events involving projectiles—such as the hammer throw—pose a blunt force trauma risk. In fact, the NCAA has rules in place requiring the use of safety cages during those events. Unfortunately, it seems an NCAA-compliant safety cage proved insufficient on April 22, 2017, when nineteen-year-old spectator Ethan Roser died after being struck by a hammer thrown during warm-ups for the Don Church Twilight NCAA Track and Field Meet at Wheaton College in Illinois. Ethan’s family filed suit against the NCAA on March 21, 2019 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging both that the NCAA negligently supervised the track & field meet and thereby caused Ethan’s death, and that the hammer throw is an ultra-hazardous activity such that the NCAA is responsible for Ethan’s death even if the NCAA was not negligent.
As noted in the Roser complaint, the NCAA propounds rules governing safety cages for use in the hammer throw event. Accordingly, it would seem hard for the NCAA to claim that the hammer throw is not a hazardous activity. Nevertheless, the NCAA might deny the Roser complaint’s allegation that the hammer throw is an ultra-hazardous activity—an allegation that potentially opens the door to strict liability—by arguing that the event is not unreasonably dangerous as designed. Moreover, we expect that the NCAA will argue that: (1) it owed no duty to Ethan; (2) it fulfilled any alleged duty it owed to Ethan by putting safety cage rules into place; (3) Ethan assumed the risks inherent in watching track & field meets by voluntarily attending; and (4) any failure in the safety cage was not the NCAA’s fault.
However, the facts as pled paint a disturbing picture. The complaint states that despite the safety cage in place being NCAA-compliant, the sixteen-pound hammer still managed to escape the safety cage and flew at a high rate of speed before hitting Ethan in the head. The complaint states that Ethan was unresponsive by the time he reached a hospital and died the same day. If those allegations are true, the key questions seem to be: were there additional steps the NCAA could have taken to protect spectators like Ethan, and if so, why didn’t the NCAA take them?
Wrongful death cases tend to be emotional, and where the deceased is a young man—a child, really—plaintiff’s counsel can appeal to a jury with all the stories of what the child’s life could have been. Accordingly, we view the allegations raised in the Roser complaint as extremely serious and will be keeping an eye on this case.
The complaint can be viewed here: https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/NCAA-Death.pdf