School District May Be Liable for Negligence Independent of Coaches’ Vicarious Liability

May 20, 2022

By Gary Chester, Senior Writer

A basic principle of tort law and agency law is that an employer may be found vicariously liable for the negligent acts of its employees. But can a school district be held liable for the death of a student-athlete when the coaches involved are not named as defendants?

The answer is in the affirmative, according to the Washington State Court of Appeals in Harris v. Federal Way Public Schools, 2022 Wash. App. LEXIS 396, No. 81179-7-1 (February 28, 2022).

The Facts

Sixteen-year-old Allen Harris was participating in a summer football conditioning workout at Federal Way High School (FWHS), located about 11 miles north of Tacoma, on an 80-degree day in July 2018. Three coaches supervised the workout, but for some undisclosed reason FWHS did not have its athletic trainer present at summer workouts.

After completing three sets of sprints, Harris collapsed and experienced what appeared to be seizures. The young student-athlete had no prior medical history of seizures or head trauma.

One of the coaches called 911. The EMTs arrived about eight minutes later. The lawsuit concerns what did not happen during those eight minutes: the coaches did not administer CPR, nor did they retrieve or use a nearby AED to try to revive Harris.

The EMTs administered CPR and used an AED before transporting Harris to a hospital, where he died approximately two hours later. The cause of death was sudden cardiac arrest.

The Allegations

Harris’ parents, individually and on behalf of their son’s estate, sued the school district but not the individual coaches for wrongful death. The complaint alleges that the district breached a duty of care towards Harris by failing to create a medical emergency response plan, failing to properly train its coaches, and failing to provide prompt and immediate medical attention.

The school brought a motion for summary judgment based on a two-part argument: first, since the plaintiffs did not name the coaches as defendants, their negligence cannot pass through to the school district; second, the plaintiffs are unable to prove the requisite gross negligence by the district because its coaches exercised at least slight care.

The trial judge heard testimony from three expert witnesses in the fields of medicine and athletic training who attributed Harris’ death to the negligent failure to use CPR and the nearby defibrillator. Dr. Jonathan Drezner, a professor of medicine with the University of Washington and the team physician for the Seattle Seahawks and the University of Washington Huskies, testified that the district’s failure to properly train its coaches violated state and federal standards.

Dr. Drezner further testified that there was no review or rehearsal of an emergency medical response plan, and that Washington Interscholastic Activities Association training “clearly states to assume [sudden cardiac arrest] in a collapsed and unresponsive athlete with seizure-like activity” and that the coaches’ misinterpretation of Allen’s collapse as a seizure “led to critical delays in CPR and defibrillation.”

The trial judge found that the plaintiffs had established a prima facie case of negligence and denied the motion for summary judgment. The district appealed.

The Appeal

On appeal, the district argued that since there is no vicarious liability the district cannot be negligent under Washington law. The court rejected this argument because the state courts “have long recognized that school districts have ‘an enhanced and solemn duty’ of reasonable care to protect their students.” This duty applies to student-athletes and constitutes a separate cause of action from any potential action against a teacher or coach.

Quoting various precedents, the court explained that negligent supervision is “based on the theory that ‘such negligence on the part of the employer is a wrong [to the injured party], entirely independent of the liability of the employer under the doctrine of respondeat superior’…[and] is based on the special relationship between the employer and employee…”

The court also rejected the district’s contention that the gross negligence standard of care that state law affords to school district employees should extend to the district. The court explained: “On its face, the plain language of the statute grants ‘any school district employee’ rendering emergency care immunity from liability unless the acts or omissions rise to ‘gross negligence’ or are willful or wanton misconduct. Because this is a derogation of the common law standard of ‘reasonable care’ that a school district owes its students, the statute must be strictly construed… The plain language of [Washington statute RCW 4.24.300(4)] applies only to school district ‘employees,’ not the school districts themselves.”

Therefore, the court concluded, a standard of ordinary care applies to a school district, and there exists a genuine issue of material fact as to whether FWHS breached its duty of ordinary care owed to the plaintiffs’ decedent.

The Takeaway

  • Emergency Action Plans (EAPs) have been a well-known component of safety in sports for decades and recognizing and treating sudden cardiac arrest is a key part of EAPs.
  • Insurance companies, as well as attorneys for municipalities, school districts, and sports organizations, should frequently emphasize that coaches and athletic personnel must be familiar with EAPs and must periodically rehearse and practice the procedures contained in EAPs.

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