North Carolina Return to Play Lawsuit Puts Spotlight on Such Protocols

Jun 9, 2017

By Gary Wolensky, Anne Marie Ellis, and Paul Alarcon, of Buchalter (
On Sept. 27, 2014, 17-year-old Isaiah Langston, a Rolesville High School football player, suffered a concussion-producing collision with another teammate during a team practice.
According to a lawsuit recently filed by Langston’s family in North Carolina, Rolesville’s failure to properly respond to this concussion led to the teen’s death. In its complaint, the family alleges that while Rolesville’s coaches and staff checked Langston and sat him out for the remainder of practice, they never notified his parents of his injury and subsequently allowed Langston to return two days later to participate in pre-game drills and warm-ups without obtaining any medical clearance. The family alleges that Langston began complaining of head pain during these drills and then collapsed and died shortly thereafter.
In its lawsuit, Langston’s family alleges that Rolesville violated North Carolina’s “Return to Play” laws enacted to prevent concussion-related injuries arising when a youth sports participant returns to play after suffering a concussion. Return to Play laws have been enacted in some form by every state in the country in response to the changing landscape of concussion awareness in youth sports. Such laws are intended to increase awareness and care in addressing concussions. Specifically, Return to Play laws generally impose educational, training and notification requirements designed to ensure that coaches, parents, and youth athletes are better educated about the signs and risks of concussions.
The Return to Play laws enacted in California are among the most robust in the country. Specifically, California’s Education Code imposes an array of concussion and head-injury related obligations on any school districts, charter schools, and private schools that offer an athletic program. See, e.g., Cal. Educ. Code § 49475(a). If a coach or administrator suspects that an athlete sustained a concussion or head injury, the athlete must be removed from play for the remainder of the day as well as receive an evaluation from a licensed health care practitioner with expertise in concussion-related injuries. Id. at § 49475(a)(1). If no concussion is diagnosed, the athlete must receive a written medical clearance before returning to practice. Id. If a concussion is diagnosed, then the athlete must complete a graduated return-to-play protocol for seven days under the supervision of a health care practitioner. Id. Lastly, athletes and their parents must sign an annual concussion and head-injury information sheet. Id. at 49475(a)(2).
Additionally, California recently dramatically expanded the scope of its Return to Play laws. Specifically, California’s new statutory requirements do not merely apply to schools, but extend to “any youth organization,” which is defined as: any “organization, business, nonprofit entity, or a local governmental agency that sponsors or conducts amateur sports competitions, training, camps, or clubs in which persons 17 years of age or younger participate in any of [a wide variety of enumerated sports.” See Cal. Health & Safety Code § 124235(b)(3). Furthermore, concussion and head injury educational materials must be provided to each coach and administrator of a youth sports organization as well as to athletes and their parents. Id. at § 124235(a)(3)-(4). Additionally, those coaches and administrators must successfully complete annual concussion and head injury education before supervising an athlete. Id. at § 124235(a)(5). As under the Education Code, when the athlete suffers a suspected concussion, the parents must be notified of the time and date of the suspected injury. Id. at § 124235(a)(2). Finally, each youth sports organization must develop and identify what procedures it has adopted to guarantee compliance with the Return to Play laws. Id. at § 124235(a)(6).
A California school or youth sports organization that takes steps to comply with these Return to Play laws greatly decreases its liability under these circumstances. Had it been in Rolesville’s position, a compliant school or organization would have ensured that its coaches and administrators were fully educated on how to detect and evaluate a concussion like that that suffered by Langston. A compliant school or organization would also have ensured that Langston’s parents received materials warning of the risks of concussion and were notified when Langston suffered a suspected concussion and was removed from the game. Furthermore, a compliant school or organization would have required Langston to receive a qualified medical evaluation and medical clearance before returning to play. Unfortunately, according to Langston’s family, none of these steps were taken by Rolesville.
Ultimately, regardless of the ultimate merits of Langston’s family’s allegations, the case highlights the risks for children who participate in scholastic or private sporting leagues that fail to take adequate steps to identify concussions and address the risks associated with head-injuries. The case also highlights the increased exposure to liability where an organization fails to comply with existing Return to Play laws. Schools and youth sports organizations can expect to see more robust and extensive Return to Play laws throughout the country. Such organizations would do well to revisit their current Return to Play policies and ensure not only that they are fully compliant with all relevant laws, but also that they are taking appropriate steps to ensure the safety of their youth athletes.


Articles in Current Issue