A federal judge from the Middle District of Pennsylvania has denied a motion to dismiss filed by a school district and some of its coaches, who were sued for their handling of a student athlete’s concussion.
The plaintiff in the case was Sheldon Mann. Mann was a student at Palmerton Area High School, where he participated in the school’s football program beginning in July of 2008.
On November 1, 2013 Mann was participating in football practice at the high school when he was hit by a teammate running full speed toward him. After the hit, he reported feelings of numbness and/or disorientation to the coaching staff, and his behavior became erratic. Immediately after the incident, the coaches told Mann to continue practicing, according to the complaint. They also allegedly failed to perform a medical evaluation, concussion test, or send him to the athletic trainer.
Later on, during the same football practice, Mann was hit again, causing him to be confused, dazed, and unable to continue practice. Mann was taken to the school’s trainer thereafter, but could not provide complete information to the trainer regarding the two hits he sustained, according to the complaint.
The parents of Mann, who continues to suffer from a host of ailments, sued, claiming the defendants did not “have a proper policy and/or procedure in place to instruct student athletes on the causes, hazards, symptoms, and dangers of traumatic brain injuries and despite Mann’s physical manifestations and his complaints after his first hit, at no time did the defendants ensure that Sheldon was medically cleared to return to practice.”
Furthermore, the defendants “failed to enforce and/or enact proper and adequate policies for head injuries resulting from athletic activities. These failures of the defendants were a normal practice, custom, or policy.”
The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), claiming that the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim under the state created danger theory. They also argue that plaintiffs have failed to state a cause of action under the Fourteenth Amendment regarding municipal liability.
Addressing the state created danger theory, the court noted that a plaintiff must establish the following four elements:
the harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct;
a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience;
a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant’s acts, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state’s actions, as opposed to a member of the public in general; and
a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.
Sanford v. Stiles, 456 F.3d 298, 304-05 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Bright v. Westmoreland County, 443 F.3d 276, 281 (3d Cir.2006)).
After satisfying the first prong, the court turned to the second prong. On this point, too, the court agreed with the plaintiff, noting that “by observing Mann getting hit on the field and subsequently exhibiting symptoms of a head injury, by instructing him to continue to practice, and by stating that the defendants were or should have been aware of the risk of continuing to play football with a head injury, the plaintiffs have stated facts that could satisfy the second element of the state created danger theory.”
The court noted that the defendants conceded the third prong.
As to the final requirement, that a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all, the defendants argued that the claim does not “rise to the level of a constitutional violation.” The court disagreed, siding with the plaintiffs for the proposition that the coaches “personally observed Masnn’s disoriented disposition yet acted in deliberate indifference to his health, safety and welfare by placing him back into practice.”
Next, the court turned to whether the municipal defendants could be held liable under the state-created danger theory. The court again agreed with the plaintiffs, who “sufficiently” alleged that the defendants “had a policy or custom of failing to medically clear student athletes and failing to enforce and/or enact proper and adequate policies for head injuries. In addition, they adequately allege that failure to train the coaches on proper procedures and a safety protocol amounts to deliberate indifference to recurring head injuries, a common hazard associated with football. Therefore, the portion of the defendants’ motion to dismiss attacking municipal liability will be denied.”
Finally, the court considered whether the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.
“Here, the court has determined that the plaintiffs have alleged claims for a constitutional violation,” wrote the court. “However, the question remains as to whether a constitutional violation in fact occurred. While ‘it is important to resolve qualified immunity questions at the earliest possible stages of litigation, the importance of resolving qualified immunity questions early is in tension with the reality that factual disputes often need to be resolved before determining whether defendant’s conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.’ Phillips, 515 F.3d at 242 n. 7 (citing Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 277-78 (3d Cir. 2002)). Therefore, the defendants’ present application for qualified immunity is premature, although they remain free to raise the argument again at a later stage.”
The court did grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss certain state law claims.
Kenneth and Rose Mann, et al. v. Palmerton Area School District, et al.; M.D. Pa.; CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:14-cv-68, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97142; 7/17/14
Attorneys of record: (for plaintiffs) Adam J. Pantano, Larry Bendesky, Robert J. Mongeluzzi, Robert W. Zimmerman, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, Philadelphia, PA; Joseph T. Healey, LEAD ATTORNEY, O’Malley, Harris, Durkin & Perry, Scranton, PA (for defendants) Robin B. Snyder, Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA.