High Court Affirms Ruling for Minnesota Vikings Employees

Dec 29, 2005

The Minnesota Supreme Court has affirmed a trial court’s ruling for employees of the Minnesota Vikings, who were sued by the widow of Korey Stringer, a Vikings football player who died in the summer of 2001 from complications of heat stroke brought on by the team’s practices.
Specifically, the court found that the employees were acting within the “course and scope” of their employment in attempting to render care to Stringer.
The impetus of the litigation was a series of events between July 29, 2001 and August 1, 2001, culminating in the death of Stringer. Head Trainer Charles Barta first recognized that Stringer was having health problems associated with the heat on July 29th. Accordingly, Barta escorted Stringer to an air-conditioned first-aid trailer in the middle of practice. Stringer recovered that day and Barta gave him two bottles of Gatorade to assist in rehydration that night.
Barta examined Stringer on the morning of July 31st and pronounced him ready to participate. Later that morning, however, Stringer began having more problems, which led to his return to the trailer. His condition deteriorated. Coordinator of Medical Services Fred Zamberletti arrived and noted that Stringer was breathing rapidly. Concluding that Stringer was hyperventilating, Zamberletti instructed another trainer to place a plastic bag around Stringer’s mouth for 45 to 60 seconds. Zamberletti took Stringer’s pulse and felt that Stringer’s skin was cool and sweaty. Zamberletti then made emergency arrangements to transport Stringer to the hospital. After arriving at the hospital, Stringer’s body temperature registered 108.8 degrees. He died early the next morning.
Stringer’s heirs sued in 2002, alleging, among other things, that the individual defendants mishandled the care and treatment of Stringer. Zamberletti and co-defendant Paul Osterman successfully moved for summary judgment. Stringer appealed.
The court of appeals affirmed, holding that although Osterman and Zamberletti owed Korey Stringer a personal duty, their actions were not grossly negligent as a matter of law. Stringer v. Minnesota Vikings Football Club, LLC, 686 N.W.2d 545, 551-52 (Minn. App. 2004). (Sports Litigation Alert, Volume 1, Issue 20)
Specifically, the defendants’ actions “may reflect poor judgment or lack of reasonable care, but there is no basis to conclude that respondents disregarded the risk to Stringer altogether in a manner ‘equivalent to a willful and intentional wrong.’” Id.
The Supreme Court determined that the central question was: Were the employees acting within the course and scope of their employment?
“In this case, Osterman and Zamberletti were employed by the Vikings to provide some level of care for the Vikings’ players, and the record demonstrates that their actions toward Stringer occurred within work-related limits of time and place. Further, while we would prefer that the record contain more specific information regarding Osterman’s and Zamberletti’s duties and responsibilities, we conclude that the record does contain sufficient information to enable us to determine their specific duties with coinciding expectations, responsibilities, and authorization. Thus, on the record before us, we are able to determine whether Osterman and Zamberletti acted within the course and scope of their employment and whether their actions were in furtherance of the interests of the Vikings’ organization.
“While in retrospect we may want or expect that Osterman and Zamberletti would have responded to Stringer’s condition differently, they nonetheless were acting within their scope of employment, and any duty they had toward Stringer did not exist absent their employment status.
“We recognize that any time medical attention or care is involved, a great deal of trust is placed in the discretion of the caregiver. Caregivers must not exceed the level of care they are trained and authorized to provide. Those who provide health care services must realize their limitations and those who provide health care services must not make decisions or take actions they are not qualified to make. But we also want those who provide health care services to be able to perform their duties and respond to emergencies without unduly worrying about being subject to personal liability for their acts. We also acknowledge that in this context the course and scope of employment may be difficult to ascertain, especially when employees such as Osterman and Zamberletti have the authority to exercise discretion in making assessments. In such situations, an appropriate baseline of job duties, expectations, and authorizations is necessary for a court to determine if an employee exceeded the course and scope of his employment. We conclude that such a baseline exists in the record before us.
”Accordingly, based on all of the foregoing, we conclude that summary judgment on the issue of whether Osterman and Zamberletti had a personal duty to Korey Stringer was appropriate and therefore we hold that the district court did not err when it granted summary judgment for the respondents.
Kelci Stringer et al. v. Minnesota Vikings Football Club, LLC, et al.; Sup. Ct. Minn.; 705 N.W.2d 746; 2005; 11/17/05
Attorneys of Record: Paul DeMarco (pro hac vice), Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley Co., L.P.A., Cincinnati, OH.; Eric J. Magnuson, Rider Bennett, L.L.P., Minneapolis, MN.; Kenneth R. White, Law Office of Kenneth R. White, P.C., Mankato, MN.; Richard G. Hunegs, Randal W. LeNeave; Hunegs, Stone, LeNeave, Kvas & Thornton, P.A., Minneapolis, MN. Kevin O’C. Green, Law Offices of Kevin O’C. Green, P.A., Mankato, MN (for appellants). James A. O’Neal, Bruce G. Jones, Amy R. Freestone; Faegre & Benson, L.L.P., Minneapolis, MN (for respondents).


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