New Jersey Court: Coaches Should ‘Exercise Reasonable Care’ When Deciding Where and When to Stage a Practice

Nov 18, 2022

By Gary Chester, Senior Writer

Participants in recreational sports generally must clear the high bar of reckless conduct by a defendant to recover for injuries. However, a New Jersey Supreme Court case, Dennehy v. East Windsor Regional Board of Education, 2022 N.J. LEXIS 978 (October 26, 2022), reminds us that the lesser standard of simple negligence can apply in some circumstances.

Background

On September 9, 2015, the Hightstown High School athletic director arranged after-school sports practices so that the girls’ field hockey team would practice on the school’s turf field when the boys’ soccer team’s use of the field ended at 3:45 p.m. At 3:00, Dezarae Fillmyer, the field hockey coach, instructed her players to warm up in an area adjacent to the turf field. During the informal warm-up, one of Fillmyer’s players, Morgan Dennehy, was struck at the base of her skull by an errant soccer ball, allegedly causing substantial injuries.

Dennehy filed a negligence action in the Superior Court of New Jersey against Fillmyer, the board of education, the school, its athletic director, and others. She alleged failures to supervise, to prevent potential foreseeable and dangerous conditions, to provide appropriate safeguards, and to post suitable warnings of potentially dangerous conditions.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff could not meet the requisite standard of reckless or intentional conduct as established in case law. The plaintiff argued that the defendants owed her a duty of reasonable supervisory care.

The trial judge dismissed the action and the plaintiff appealed, challenging the judge’s determination that she must prove her coach acted recklessly. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the recklessness standard was inapplicable because Fillmyer “was not a co-participant.” The defendants appealed to the state’s highest court, which granted certification.

The N.J. Supreme Court Clarifies the Standard of Care

The defendants argued that the reckless conduct standard applied pursuant to Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494 (1994), where a catcher sued a baserunner in a recreational softball game for injuries sustained in a collision at home plate. There, the state Supreme Court held that the heightened standard of recklessness applies to causes of action for personal injuries by participants in recreational sports, rejecting a lower court’s reasoning that simple negligence applies. Subsequent decisions established that the recklessness standard applies regardless of whether an activity is commonly perceived as a “contact” or “noncontact” sport. The Court recognized a societal policy of encouraging participation in athletics and avoiding a flood of litigation.

But the Court found an important distinction in this case: Dennehy was alleging tortious conduct by her coach and not by a co-participant in her field hockey warm-up. The Court recognized Fillmyer as a supervisor whose alleged negligence was “her choice of the location of the impromptu workout prior to the scheduled practice and her failure to supervise her players as they waited their turn on the turf field.”

The defendants relied on a case in which a karate instructor injured a student during a match, asserting that Fillmyer was a participant in the team’s warm up session. The Court distinguished the precedent, recognizing that even if Fillmyer was actively participating in the practice when Dennehy was injured, the injury was not related to field hockey, but from an adjacent activity. Any liability would arise from the coach’s supervisory duties and not from participating in the warm-up.

The Court reasoned that applying a simple negligence standard to the case does not undermine the policy of promoting youth participation in recreational sports. The Court added that “parents have the right to expect that teachers and coaches will exercise reasonable care when in charge of their children and that courts will not immunize a teacher’s negligence by imposing a higher standard of care.” 

The Takeaway

A fundamental principle of risk management is to anticipate and prevent potentially dangerous situations. Sports managers must implement policies prohibiting coaches from conducting activities in an area that is dangerously close to another activity or take other precautions such as using a safety net or a partition to minimize risk. Coaches and administrators must recognize potential safety risks in practice as well as in formal competition.