A suit brought by a student-athlete, who was injured during a soccer scrimmage, has been given new life by a California appeals court, which concluded that the university may not have fulfilled all of its obligations to pay the medical bills of the student-athlete.
In all other respects, however, the court affirmed the lower court’s rulings for the defendants.
The incident that led to the litigation occurred in October 1999 when Mircea Voda, a member of the California State University – Los Angeles soccer team, collided with an assistant coach during a scrimmage, suffering a broken clavicle (collar bone).
Voda alleged that the assistant coach purposely sought to hit him at “neck level.” As a result, Voda underwent three surgeries to repair his collar bone and incurred over $100,000 in medical bills, which the University paid. However, the University refused to pay for any additional medical treatments, even though Voda presented evidence he will need continued treatment and medication for his shoulder and suffer pain for the rest of his life. Voda estimated the cost of future medical treatment at approximately $250,000.
During discovery, it was revealed that the university head athletic trainer, Lori Rudd, gave a talk at an orientation meeting for all student athletes, where she said that the “University has a system or plan for paying their medical bills if they do not have their own insurance.” No additional details were given, notably in the area of a cap on payments or a time limit for the payment of benefits, according to the court.
In addition, Rudd gave a packet of release forms to Santo Rivas, the head soccer coach, who distributed the forms to his players. The players were instructed to sign the forms and return them. The form purports to release the University “from any and all liability, actions, causes of action, debts, claims or demands of any kind and nature whatsoever” arising from the student’s participation in any University activity. The plaintiff signed and returned his form.
Voda sued the University, the assistant coach and Rivas. Specifically, he alleged negligence and battery on the part of assistant coach and negligence and intentional misrepresentation on the part of Rivas in conducting the practice in which Voda was injured. He also alleged the University breached its promise to pay his medical bills without limitation should he be injured in a soccer practice. Finally, the complaint alleges the University’s breach of promise constituted an unfair business practice.
After the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary adjudication of Voda’s causes of action for breach of contract, misrepresentation and unfair business practices, and a jury returned a verdict for defendants on the personal injury claim, Voda appealed.
In its analysis, the court focused initially on the university’s obligation to continue paying for the plaintiff’s medical treatment. The trial court sided with the university, which had argued that Rudd did not have authority to obligate the University to pay Voda’s medical expenses beyond the policy limits.
In reversing the trial court, the appeals court wrote that: “a triable issue of fact exists as to whether the University promised Voda it would cover his medical expenses without limitation should he be injured while participating in the University’s soccer program. Whether this promise is enforceable as a contract or by way of estoppel is a question we need not decide at this stage of the litigation.”
While the university had been convincing that Rudd did not possess such powers, the appeals court wrote that “a trier of fact could find Rudd had the ostensible authority to bind the University to the contract alleged by Voda. Ostensible authority is authority “a principal, intentionally or by want of ordinary care, causes or allows a third person to believe the agent to possess.” Civil Code section 2317.
Finally, the court held that the “doctrine of promissory estoppel to protect the student against future losses which may accompany a severe injury” may come into play.
“It is well known colleges depend on student-athletes’ participation in their intercollegiate athletic programs to generate economic and noneconomic benefits. Admittedly, the defendant in this case is no Michigan or U.S.C. and it probably generates little if any income from its soccer program,” wrote the court.
“But the benefit colleges receive from intercollegiate athletic programs is not limited to generating income. Successful college athletic teams are important in generating school spirit, marketing the college to prospective students and the community, attracting media attention, and facilitating the recruitment of new crops of student-athletes. The University does tout its athletic programs, including soccer, on its web site noting its past championships and honors. The present record shows the University recruited Voda to play intercollegiate soccer for it and gave him a small grant-in-aid in return. Beyond that the record is not clear on exactly what the relationship was between the University and Voda.
“Typically, colleges exert a great deal of influence over their student-athletes, often dictating where they will live and with whom, what courses they will take and, of course, controlling their study, practice and social time during the sport’s season. In addition, providing financial assistance one year at a time, which it appears was done in Voda’s case, allows the college to use the threat of nonrenewal to compel the student-athlete to acquiesce to many of its demands. In the case of a serious injury the student-athlete may not only lose his scholarship and be left without any options to attend other schools, his entire future may be adversely affected. Given the level of benefit to the college and the level of risk to the student-athlete it may well be that justice requires using the doctrine of promissory estoppel to protect the student against future losses which may accompany a severe injury.” Voda v. Cal State University Los Angeles; Ct. App.2nd, Div. 7; B163096; 8/3/04
Counsel of Record: (for plaintiff) Gary Rand and Suzanne E. Rand-Lewis. (for defendant) Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Andrea Lynn Hoch, Chief Assistant Attorney General, James M. Schiavenza, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Richard Rojo, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, and Mark V. Santa Romana, Deputy Attorney General.