By Kacie Kergides and Kimberly Sachs, of Montgomery McCracken
On August 20, 2021, the Kentucky Court of Appeals held that a public high school coach and athletic trainer were entitled to qualified immunity—a doctrine that shields government employees from individual liability in lawsuits alleging violations of a clearly established right. The case involved the tragic death of Star Ifeacho, a former basketball player at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky. Peace Ifeacho, his bereaved mother, brought a lawsuit against several coaches and administrators of Dunbar and Fayatte County Public Schools (FCPS), including Coach Chris Armstrong and athletic trainer Cody Begley, alleging violations of FCPS policies and negligence. Both Armstrong and Begley argued they were entitled to qualified immunity because they used their discretion in good faith when deciding how to respond to an emergency involving Star. Though the trial court found only athletic trainer Begley was entitled to qualified immunity, the case eventually reached the Kentucky Court of Appeals, where both Armstrong and Begley were found to be immune from suit on any and all tort claims involving Star.
On April 26, 2017, Star, a sophomore at Dunbar, attended an after-school basketball “open gym,” where Chris Armstrong, a teacher and assistant boys’ basketball coach, was supervising and coaching the students. During the open gym, Star complained to other students that he was having trouble breathing. After it was not getting better, Star went to the athletic trainers’ office to speak with Cody Begley, an athletic trainer who worked at Dunbar pursuant to a contract with FCPS. Star specifically complained to Begley that his heart was racing. As Star turned to leave the athletic trainers’ office, he turned back to Begley, stated “it’s doing it,” and then collapsed. Begley immediately went to Star’s side, rolled him onto his back, checked his breathing and pulse, and, while doing so, instructed a football player in the office to call 911. Begley then began applying CPR and instructed another student to go find a coach. Thereafter, Armstrong came into the office and began to assist Begley.
During this time, Begley also instructed another nearby student to call another athletic trainer, Gabrielle Sombelon, who had taken the only automated external defibrillator (“AED”) with her to an in-season baseball practice. According to the FCPS policy concerning the placement of AEDs in a building, “[t]he optimal response time is three (3) minutes or less . . . Survival rates decrease by 7-10% for every minute defibrillation is delayed.”
When Sombelon did not initially answer her phone, Begley instructed two other students to retrieve another AED located in the school’s foyer, approximately 325 feet from the athletic trainers’ office. Once the students arrived with the AED, Begley applied the AED’s leads to Star and delivered a shock when prompted by the AED. Before Begley could deliver a second shock, the Lexington Fire Department arrived and assumed resuscitation efforts. Star was transported to the University of Kentucky Emergency Department, but they were unable revive him and he passed away.
The Trial Court Case
Star’s Estate and Star’s mother, in her individual capacity, brought an action in Fayette Circuit Court against several Dunbar and FCPS coaches and administrators, including coach Armstrong and athletic trainer Begley, in both their individual and official capacities. The trial court dismissed all official capacity claims against Armstrong and Begley, leaving only the individual claims.
The complaint alleged that Armstrong was required under FCPS policies to immediately retrieve an AED. Similarly, the complaint claimed that Begley was negligent in having a student attempt to contact Sombelon to bring the portable AED to the athletic training room rather than immediately sending a student to obtain the other AED in the foyer.
Armstrong moved for summary judgment, claiming he was entitled to sovereign immunity, but the Fayatte Circuit Court denied Armstrong’s motion, finding the claims against Armstrong were based on ministerial facts, and therefore, sovereign immunity was not applicable. Additionally, the court found that Armstrong was not immune under Kentucky’s AED and Good Samaritan statutes because he was not engaged in Star’s medical treatment. Begley’s summary judgment motion was granted. Both Armstrong and the Estate filed timely appeals.
The Kentucky Supreme Court has held that when an officer or employee of the state or county is sued in his or her individual capacity, that officer or employee is often entitled to qualified official immunity, “which affords protection from damages liability for good faith judgment calls made in a legally uncertain environment.” Yanero v. Davis, 65 S.W.3d 510, 522 (Ky. 2001). The application of qualified immunity “rests not on the status or title of the officer or employee, but on the function performed.” Id. at 51. Specifically, “the analysis depends upon classifying the particular acts or functions in question in one of two ways: discretionary or ministerial.” Haney v. Monskey, 311 S.W.3d 235, 240 (Ky. 2010). A duty is ministerial “when the officer’s duty is absolute, certain, and imperative, involving merely execution of a specific act arising from fixed and designated facts.” Patton v. Bickford, 529 S.W.3d 717, 724 (Ky. 2016).
In finding that Armstrong was entitled to qualified immunity, the Appellate Court analyzed whether the FCPS Protocol imposed a ministerial duty on Armstrong to retrieve the AED or whether his decision was a good faith judgment call made in a legally uncertain environment. The Protocol instructs that certain actions must be taken when presented with an unresponsive victim: confirm the unresponsiveness of the victim, call 911, alert athletic and/or supervising staff, retrieve an AED, and follow CPR and AED procedures until EMS arrives. The court concluded that it was mandatory and ministerial that those tasks be completed.
When Armstrong entered the training room, Begley, an athletic trainer and certified-EMT, was already taking emergency care of Star. Armstrong responded to an in-progress situation already being managed in which appropriate care was being rendered. The court held that so long as Begley’s aid was appropriate, Armstrong cannot be faulted for using his discretion in declining to take control from an individual with superior training and experience.
As it related to Begley, in noting that the negligence claims were dropped against him, the court found that Begley’s decision-making process in determining how to retrieve the AED in this emergency situation was clearly discretionary in nature. Further, the court stated that although the Emergency Action Plan in place at the time made it mandatory for Begley to designate someone to retrieve the AED, his exercise of that discretion in who to designate, which AED to instruct that designee to retrieve, and how long to wait prior to designating someone else to retrieve an alternate AED were not specified by the EAP and instead remained in Begley’s discretion. Therefore, because Begley’s actions were discretionary, he was entitled to qualified immunity.
A school official’s primary concern when it comes to saving a student’s life should be just that: saving a student’s life. Emergency situations require quick thinking and action, and coaches and athletic trainers should feel comfortable assessing the emergency circumstances and responding as they deem necessary given their expertise and training. Of course, every organization should have a protocol in place to ensure that coaches, athletic trainers, and athletic staff are taking the appropriate steps when a student-athlete’s life is in danger. But, in an uncertain environment where every second counts, the focus should be on how to save a life and keep everyone safe—not on potential liability.
Still, discretionary decision making should be avoided when the circumstances so permit. Schools and athletic organizations have safety protocols and procedures in place for a reason, and coaches, athletic trainers, and athletic staff should adhere to these protocols and procedures to the extent possible to ensure a safe environment for student-athletes. There should always be an emergency action plan in place, and school personnel should host quarterly trainings throughout the year for their athletic department to make sure the coaches, athletic trainers, and athletic staff responsible for the safety and well-being of student-athletes are well-versed in the steps they must take in an emergency situation.
Here, Armstrong and Begley were clearly familiar with the FCPS policies, and they tried to follow them as best they could. But, they both recognized that the emergency situation required them to make quick discretionary decisions about the policies in order to administer Star the best care in the safest and most efficient way. Though Star’s tragic death was an unfortunate event, Armstrong and Begley did everything they could, within reason, to save his life.
In today’s litigious society, the number of lawsuits against school personnel for student-athlete related injuries and deaths are increasing. Organizations must protect not only themselves, but the lives of their student-athletes, by having strict guidelines in place for medical emergencies. But, these protocols are not always a one-size-fits-all approach, and there should be some leniency in the law for spur-of-the-moment discretionary decision-making. The Kentucky Court of Appeals recognized this, and we anticipate future courts’ ruling on qualified immunity in the medical emergency sports context will reach similar conclusions.