Federal Appeals Court Sides with Coaches in Wrongful Death Case

Mar 27, 2009

The 11th U.S, Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court, finding that three high school football coaches were entitled to qualified immunity in a case in which the coaches subjected the plaintiff to rigorous drills the day before he collapsed and died.
In so ruling, the court found that the actions of the coaches did not sufficiently “shock” the “conscience,” the necessary threshold for piercing the qualified immunity defense.
The event leading to the litigation occurred during a football practice in 2007, when plaintiff Tyler Davis participated in a voluntary workout with the Rockdale County High School football team. Davis was allegedly subjected “to an intense and unreasonable practice that cause him to collapse and die the next morning.”
The parents of the plaintiff subsequently sued the Rockdale County Public Schools (RCPS), the State of Georgia, and various RCHS employees, including the three football coaches.
The plaintiffs relied on Section 1983 in alleging that the coaches had violated Tyler’s substantive due process rights. They claimed specifically that the defendants failed to provide sufficient water, ignored his complaints that he was becoming dehydrated, and failed to attend to him until after the team meeting.
The defendants then moved to dismiss the complaint, a motion that the district court granted as it related to all defendants except the coaches. Specifically, the lower court found that the complaint sufficiently alleged a constitutional violation under the Fourteenth Amendment and the coaches were not entitled to qualified immunity.
In reviewing the decision, the panel noted that “the plaintiffs allege the coaches violated Tyler Davis’s substantive due process rights during the workout session because: (1) Davis was deprived of water and exhibited signs of overheating; (2) when Davis collapsed on the football field, the coaches deliberately chose not to assist him or immediately summon medical assistance; and (3) these deliberate decisions resulted in the deprivation of his right to life, liberty, health, bodily integrity, and safety. The district court found these facts, if proven, are sufficient to support a finding that the coaches acted willfully or maliciously with an intent to injure Davis. We disagree.”
Quoting from County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 846, 118 S. Ct. 1708, 1716 (1998), the panel noted that “the Due Process Clause was intended to prevent government officials from abusing their power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression.” The panel added that the substantive component of the Due Process Clause “protects individual liberty against ‘certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them.’” Collins v.City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 125, 112 S. Ct. 1061, 1068 (1992) (quoting Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331, 106 S. Ct. 662, 665 (1986)).
“’Nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors.’ DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S.189, 195, 109 S. Ct. 998, 1003 (1989). In DeShaney, the Supreme Court expressly rejected the argument that a constitutional duty of protection can arise from a state’s ‘special relationship’ with a particular individual where the state played no part in creating the danger posed to the individual. Id. at 197, 109 S. Ct. at 1004. Conduct by a government actor will rise to the level of a substantive due process violation only if the act can be characterized as arbitrary or conscience-shocking in a constitutional sense. See Lewis, 523 U.S. at 847, 118 S. Ct. at 1717. The concept of conscience-shocking conduct ‘duplicates no traditional category of common-law fault, but rather points clearly away from liability, or clearly toward it, only at the ends of the tort law’s spectrum of culpability.’ Id. at 848, 118 S. Ct. at 1717. The Supreme Court has made clear ‘the due process guarantee does not entail a body of constitutional law imposing liability whenever someone cloaked with state authority causes harm. Id. Thus, ‘the Fourteenth Amendment is not a “font of tort law” that can be used, through section 1983, to convert state tort claims into federal causes of action.’ Neal v. Fulton County Bd. of Educ., 229F.3d 1069, 1074 (11th Cir. 2000) (citing Lewis, 523 U.S. at 848, 118 S. Ct. at1718). To rise to the conscience-shocking level, conduct most likely must be ‘intended to injure in some way unjustifiable by any government interest.’ Lewis, 523 U.S. at 849, 118 S. Ct. at 1718.”
After examining case law that was analogous, the panel turned back to the case at hand.
“In this case, Tyler Davis voluntarily participated in an extracurricular after-school activity, so no custodial relationship existed between himself and the school,” the panel wrote. “The plaintiffs did not allege the coaches engaged in corporal punishment or physically contacted Davis. The allegations in the complaint do not support a finding that the coaches acted willfully or maliciously with an intent to injure Davis. Rather, the facts allege that the coaches were deliberately indifferent to the safety risks posed by their conduct to Davis. In this school setting case, the complaint’s allegations of deliberate indifference, without more, do not rise to the conscience-shocking level required for a constitutional violation.”
Davis v. Carter; 11th Cir.; No. 08-10162; 1/23/09


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