State Appeals Applies ‘Prudent Person Standard of Care’ to Golf Case

Nov 24, 2006

A California state appeals court has reversed a trial court after concluding that it should have applied “the prudent person standard of care” when determining whether a middle school golf coach and the school district that employed him was liable for an accident that occurred during a P.E. class. That trial court applied “the Knight/Kahn limited duty of care,” which is a more forgiving standard.
The setting for the accident was a 7th grade P.E. class being taught in the Long Beach Unified School District. The plaintiff, Jane Hemady, was a 12-year-old student at the time. Hemady was standing in line waiting her turn to swing her golf club when the student in front of her unexpectedly took another swing, hitting her in the mouth.
The plaintiff sued, seeking damages for personal injuries from the school district and the instructor, Brian Feely. In her complaint, she alleged that Feely had failed to properly supervise the class and was purposefully distracted at the time of the accident.
Traditionally, the applicable standard of care for such litigation has been “the prudent person standard of care,” which establishes that persons have a duty to use due care to avoid injury to others, and may be held liable if their failure to use due care injures another person. (Civ. Code, § 1714;2 Cheong v. Antablin (1997)16 Cal.4th 1063, 1068.)
The standard was shaken in recent years by Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 1004, in which the California Supreme Court established an exception to the prudent person standard of care in certain sports settings, citing the fact that “dangerous conditions or conduct are often an integral part of the sport itself.
“To prevent a fundamental alteration of certain sports and to guard against chilling a coach’s role or discouraging vigorous participation in sports activities, in some cases, under the primary assumption of risk doctrine, a coach or co-participant’s potential liability is not governed by the prudent person duty of care. Rather, the coach or coparticipant will only owe the plaintiff a limited duty of care not to intentionally injure a player or engage in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport. (Kahn, at p. 996.)”
The trial court applied the limited duty of care, spawning the appeal.
The appeals court disagreed, noting that the policies which support the limited duty of care “do not apply to a seventh grade golf class. Applying a prudent person standard of care to determine defendants’ potential liability will not result in a fundamental alteration of the game of golf or the loss of an integral part of the sport.
“Likewise, applying a prudent person standard of care in this case will not chill a coach’s role in challenging students to improve their golf game, and will not discourage vigorous participation by student athletes.
“Moreover, historically, the California Supreme Court has applied the prudent person standard of care to determine liability of school districts and their employees for injuries to students which occurred during school hours. (See Bellman v. San Francisco
H. S. Dist. (1938) 11 Cal.2d 576 (Bellman) [injuries occurred during tumbling physical education class]; Pirkle v. Oakdale Union Etc. School Dist. (1953) 40 Cal.2d 207 (Pirkle) [injuries occurred during supervised touch football game at noon recess]; and Dailey v.
Los Angeles Unified School District (1970) 2 Cal.3d 741 (Dailey) [injuries occurred during unsupervised slap boxing after lunch].)3 The Supreme Court in Knight and Khan gave no indication that it intended to overrule or disapprove these authorities, which remain viable today.”
Jane Hemady, a minor, etc., et al. v. Long Beach Unified School District et al.; Ct. App. of Calif., 2d App. Dist., Div. 3; B184274; 9/28/06
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs and appellants) Edna V. Wenning; Bond Curtis and Alexander W. Kirkpatrick. (for defendants and respondents) Thomas Law Firm and Allen L. Thomas.
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