By Rachel S. Silverman, MS
On August 13, 2019, Imani Bell, a 16-year-old student at Elite Scholars Academy in Jonesboro, GA, died after collapsing during running drills during a basketball practice in 100-degree weather. At the time of the incident, the temperature was 98 degrees with a heat index temperature of 101 to 106. A heat advisory had been declared for Clayton Country that day. Bell was running up football stadium steps at the time of her collapse. The autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations confirmed that Bell’s death was due to heatstroke caused by the vigorous physical exertion in the extreme heat. The official cause of death stated, “Hyperthermia and rhabdomyolysis during physical exertion with high ambient temperature,” and the manner of death was listed as an accident (Albright, 2019). She had no pre-existing medical conditions.
For the defendants, the civil case named the head basketball coach, the athletic director, the principal, and the assistant principals. The civil lawsuit included multiple claims against the defendants, including failures to pay attention to the heat index, to monitor students for signs of overheating, and to provide rest period and water breaks (Diaz, 2021). However, the case became a criminal case in July of 2021 when a grand jury in Clayton County indicted Head Basketball Coach LaRosa Walker-Asekere and Assistant Basketball Coach Broom Palmer on charges of second-degree murder, cruelty to children, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless conduct. In bringing the charges, Tasha Mosley, the Clayton Country district attorney, stated that “[t]he murder charge is second degree and is based on criminal negligence as opposed to malice” (Murphy, 2021).
Civil negligence is the failure to use reasonable care that results in damages or injury to another person. To prove if negligence has occurred, the plaintiff must prove duty, breach of duty, cause of action, and damages/injuries. Criminal negligence is when the actions by a person ignore an obvious risk or disregard the life and safety of others. To prove criminal negligence, the state will have to show that the defendants acted recklessly and created a high risk of injury or death, as well as that a reasonable person would have known that these actions posed such a risk. However, in the Bell case, the murder charges based on criminal negligence may have been to encourage a plea deal, according to Jessica Gabel Cino, a partner at a law firm in Atlanta. She stated that “[a] murder charge strapped on to a child endangerment/abuse charge isn’t obviously inappropriate, but I do question whether the prosecution can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.” This case has yet to be decided.
A similar case was filed in Kentucky in 2009, with the heat-related illness death of football player, Max Gilpin. Gilpin collapsed during a football practice at which the heat index was 94 degrees. Head Football Coach, Jason Stinson was charged with wanton endangerment and reckless homicide, the first time a football coach had been criminally charged for the heat-related death of a player. Following a jury trial, Stinson was found not guilty on both charges.
Albright, M. (2019, December 20). Autopsy transcript: Clayton student’s death an accident. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. https://www.ajc.com/news/local/autopsy-clayton-student-death-accident/jEZcwaDiHdT3yBClQcRgzK/
Diaz, J. (2021, February 24). Family of Georgia teen who died after basketball drills sues school officials. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/24/us/imani-bell-lawsuit.html
Murphy, H. (2021, August 11). High school coaches charged with murder in teen’s heat-related death. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/11/us/basketball-coaches-murder-imani-bell.html
Rachel Silverman is a Sport Management doctoral student at Troy University. She has her master’s degree in Kinesiology and Sport Management from the University of South Dakota and her bachelor’s degree in Studio Art and Art History with a minor in Journalism from Brandeis University. She is an adjunct faculty member in the Physical Education Department at Fullerton College in Fullerton, California. Her research interests are sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. She lives in Anaheim, CA.
Michael S. Carroll is a Full Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. He also serves as Online Program Coordinator for the University. He lives in Orlando, FL.