Grossly Negligent:  Failing To Staff An Athletic Trainer And Failing To Pull Visibly Concussed Middle School Football Player Results in Verdict Against South Carolina School District

Aug 12, 2022

By Tara Hessenthaler and Kacie Kergides, Esq.

Pregame Xs and Os  

On October 11, 2017, Sarah Wood sued the Horry County School District on behalf of her son, Logan Wood, for gross negligence and on behalf of herself for loss of services and medical expenses. The suit originates from coaches and referees’ failure to pull Logan Wood after he exhibited visible signs of a concussion in an October 20, 2016 football game for North Myrtle Beach Middle School.

Blown Coverage

Logan Wood was a minor football player on the North Myrtle Beach Junior High B-team. After the buzzer sounded ending the second quarter of the October 20, 2016 away game, Logan Wood was hit by multiple players on the opposing team. Logan voiced to his teammates and coaching staff that he was having difficulty with his balance after the hit. During halftime, Logan also exhibited outward signs of confusion, loss of balance, and visual impairment.

Despite his continuing signs of head trauma, the coaches put Logan back into the game during the third quarter, where he suffered additional hits to the head. Throughout the second half of the game, Logan was seen staggering down the sidelines and attempting to continue plays after the whistle had blown. Logan’s coaches never removed him from the game and North Myrtle Beach Middle School did not have an athletic trainer present to address the situation.

The Horry County School District’s Procedures for Management of Sports-Related Concussion state that “any athlete who has symptoms of a concussion and who is not stable … is to be transported immediately to the nearest emergency department via ambulance.” The District’s procedure manual even lists decreasing level of consciousness, unusual drowsiness, difficulty paying attention, and mental status changes as symptoms of a concussion.

Immediately following the game, Logan Wood was diagnosed with a serious brain injury and was unable to attend school for an extended period of time due to short-term and long-term memory loss.

Sarah Wood’s Two-Point Conversion  

Sarah Wood, individually and as parent and natural guardian of Logan Wood, filed a lawsuit in the Horry County Court of Common Pleas against the Horry County School District. She alleged that the School District acted with gross negligence or recklessness, and that it breached the duty of care owed to Logan by failing to enforce school policies and procedures regarding concussion and head trauma protocols, failing to recognize that he had a head injury, failing to remove him from the game, and failing to give him treatment. Specifically, the complaint included an allegation that the school district was negligent, reckless, and grossly negligent in “failing to exercise slight care to provide a competent replacement trainer to stand in for the team trainer who was attending a work conference in another state during the October 20, 2016 game in which Plaintiff was injured.”

At the trial, Rod Waters, a certified athletic trainer, testified for Wood about numerous violations of the standards for acceptable and safe operations in high school and middle school sports. Current and former employees and volunteers at North Myrtle Beach Middle School also testified as to specific deficiencies in the School District’s operations and management of sports related concussions. South Carolina defines gross negligence as the “intentional, conscious failure to do something which is incumbent upon one to do or the doing of a thing intentionally that one ought not to do.”[1]

In April 2021, the jury found the School District liable for two occurrences of gross negligence: letting Logan play football without an athletic trainer present for his team and failing to evaluate Logan for concussion symptoms.

The Horry County School District filed three post-trial motions. The judge denied the first two, but granted the motion to lower the amount of damages granted by the jury. In the end, the Court reduced the amount of damages awarded to Sarah Wood to $625,000, pursuant to the caps on damages set out in the South Carolina Tort Claims Act.

The case is currently standing on appeal in the South Carolina Circuit Court.

Postgame Presser

Sport-related concussions and sub-concussive blows to the head are prominent issues in youth sports, as well as at the collegiate and professional levels. Many of the resources addressing concussions are delegated to the collegiate and professional levels; however, regardless of resources, every organization, including youth sports, should have protocols and practices in place to ensure that coaches, athletic trainers, and staff are trained to take the appropriate steps when a student athlete’s health and safety is at risk.

The outcome of Wood is a warning to all school districts and organizations that they could be held liable for failing to provide an athletic trainer. Whether the home or away team is responsible for ensuring that an athletic trainer is present for away games is a highly debated topic in youth through high school sports. The answer to this debate is unclear and often varies by state or school district and state specific laws and regulations.  However, it is clear that courts will hold schools legally responsible, like they did to the Horry County School District, if they fail to provide an athletic trainer to travel with their football team to an away game while the team trainer is attending another commitment.

Although there are inherent risks to sports, like football, the outcome in Wood established that courts and juries will not grace schools and organizations with immunity from liability when they are grossly negligent. The act of allowing students to compete without an athletic trainer, or other medical provider, present alone was sufficient enough to establish legal liability and gross negligence in Wood. Add in the fact that Logan Wood was allowed to continue to play when he was exhibiting obvious concussion symptoms, the Wood verdict is not surprising.

In today’s society, the number of lawsuits against schools for student-athlete related injuries is increasing. Schools must protect themselves, and the lives of young student-athletes, by implementing and following strict guidelines for such emergencies.

While the jury did not find Horry County School District grossly negligent in failing to train the coaching staff regarding post-concussive syndrome and second-impact syndrome, we anticipate that as concussion litigation continues to increase and studies on the long-term effects of concussions continue to arise, that such liability could be found. School districts could be held legally liable for failure to train coaches to exercise increased caution and care prior to putting a player back into a game, particularly in states or jurisdictions where the standard of care is ordinary negligence.

[1] Faile v. S.C. Dep’t of Juvenile Justice, 350 S.C. 315, 331, 566 S.E.2d 536, 544 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted).

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