Jeff Birren, Senior Writer
Sometimes good deeds lead to bad results and the law provides no relief. This happened to Kent Culp. Culp was hired to referee in a youth basketball tournament in McCracken County, Kentucky. After a game, the losing coach “struck” Culp “from behind, hitting him in the head with his fist and knocking him unconscious and causing him serious injury.” Eleven months later Culp sued SI Select Basketball and its director, alleging four counts of negligence. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, as it “is uncontroverted” that the assault “was not reasonably foreseeable”. Consequently, there was no breach of the “standard of care.” The Kentucky Court of Appeals recently upheld the decision (Culp v. SI Select Basketball, 2023 WL 2542625 (3-17-23)). For his part in this sad tale, Kentucky issued the coach the number 527375.
Philip Swinford was the “founder and director” of SI Select, a youth basketball program in Southern Illinois. Swinford “organized, promoted, and hosted” several youth basketball tournaments as part of the annual fundraising efforts. In April 2019 one of the tournaments was in McCracken County, with 60 teams, and “a total of 600 to 700 players between the ages of 14 and 17.”
Keyon Menifield coached one of the teams. Prior to the tournament, Swinford and Menifield had only a single, “cordial” interaction as opposing coaches in a 2018 tournament. Swinford invited Menifield’s team to participate in the 2019 tournament. Culp was the referee. There “was no apparent hostility—before or during the game” between them. The assault took place after the game. Menifield struck Culp in the back of his head, “knocking him unconscious”. Culp was “transported to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville with injuries including a brain bleed, broken collar bone, crack in his sinus cavity, concussion, and bruising to his face.”
Menifield and his team left the facility. He was “apprehended at a nearby hotel and charged with second-degree assault.” Menifield was indicted on July 6, 2019. Kentucky began to house Menifield on January 12, 2022. He will not have to provide his own meals until, at the earliest, October 1, 2024, though it could extend until October 2026. This was not Menifield’s his first exposure to the criminal justice system. He had a previous conviction for assault and drug trafficking and was “wanted on an active arrest warrant in Indiana. There was no evidence that Director Swinford knew of this.”
In March 2020, Culp sued Swinford and SI Select. He alleged “four counts of negligence.” Those were: that Swinford should have known of Menifield’s violent tendencies by conducting a background check on invited coaches; that Swinford failed to “establish safety policies and procedures”; there was a failure to use reasonable care to protect invitees; and there was a failure to provide security guards, and this negligence was a substantial factor in causing Culp’s personal injuries. Swinford and SI Select eventually filed motions for summary judgment. They asserted that the injuries were not foreseeable, and thus there was no breach of the standard of care. The trial court agreed and dismissed Culp’s claims. He appealed.
In the Court of Appeals
The Court’s role when faced with a grant of summary judgment is to determine if the trial court “correctly found that there were not genuine issues as to any material fact” so that “the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” “[A]ll facts and inferences in the record are viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and ‘all doubts are to be resolved in his favor.’” The motion “looks only to questions of law, and we review de novo.”
Kentucky has the standard components for negligence claims as other states. It requires proof “of the existence of a duty, breach thereof, causation and damages.” The elements of breach, causation and damages are questions of fact for a jury, but duty is a question of law for the court. According to the Kentucky Supreme Court, when finding that the defendant “owed no duty, they usually mean only that the defendant owed no duty that was breached or that he owed no duty that was relevant on the facts.” Without “breach, there can be no negligence as a matter of law.”
The parties agreed “all persons have a duty of care to prevent foreseeable injury.” However, they disagreed “as to whether a duty was breached.” Culp argued that these were “material questions of fact” for a jury to decide; that “foreseeability is a question of fact”, not a question of law for the court; and if it was a question of law, the “assaultive conduct” here “was reasonably foreseeable.” The defendants countered that the case had been appropriately decided; that there was no issue of material breach; that prior case law did not prevent summary judgment; and there was no breach of a duty because the attack was not reasonably foreseeable.
Kentucky previously eliminated “unfair obstacles to the presentation of legitimate claims.” In some cases, “foreseeability “should be treated as a factor within the breach analysis” but not in cases “involving third-party criminal actions, like the matter before us.” The Court cited a similar case involving a criminal attack. There, the Kentucky Supreme Court held that a “landowner has a duty to protect patrons from third-party acts only if he or she ‘knows of activities or conduct of other patrons or third-persons which would lead a reasonably prudent person to believe or anticipate that injury to a patron might be caused’ and if he or she can reasonably safeguard against them.” That plaintiff was required to provide evidence that a third-party criminal attack was reasonably foreseeable. Any prior criminal acts were “too distinct factually, occurred to distantly in time” and failed to establish a pattern that could have led the defendant “to anticipate the kind of crime committed… Foreseeability is specific to the premises at issue.”
The issue was whether “Swinford had a duty to protect” Culp from Menifield, and that “hinges upon whether the assault was reasonably foreseeable or could have been anticipated.” The answer was no. Swinford coached and promoted tournaments at the Sports Plex for ten years and “had never experienced a fight among participants.” The Sports Plex owner testified that although there had been five incidents of verbal arguments among fans, “he knew of no physical assaults.” Culp produced reports from local law enforcement agencies but that showed only a single “account of an assault by one participant upon another player” in 2017, at another league, and not at a tournament promoted by Swinford.
Culp admitted that he had refereed up to 15 tournaments at the Sports Plex, but was never concerned about assaults, had never seen assaults on participants nor referees, and in 20 years he had not experienced a fight or “assaultive behavior.” Culp further testified that “the punch from Coach Menifield was not signaled by anything that occurred during the game or the entire day. He had no clue that the punch was coming.” Consequently, “the evidence presented does not establish a pattern that could have led” the defendants “to anticipate the assault”. “Since Coach Menifield’s criminal acts were not reasonably foreseeable, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment.”
Culp was seriously injured but obtained no relief. Menifield is not able to pay Culp for the damage that he caused, nor is that likely to change. Culp followed the money to SI Select and Swinford, but without any reason to anticipate such incidents, they did not breach the duty of care. It is a terrible but non-compensable event for this youth-sports referee.
Swinford and SI Select are now on notice that criminal attacks by participants can happen. Presumably insurance coverage paid for the defense, but based on this event, the premiums undoubtedly went up. That may be ultimately cost-prohibitive for these tournaments. Conducting thorough background checks on every coach, and participant, including players, could also be cost-prohibitive. What “safety procedures” or “reasonable care” exists that could have prevented this criminal assault? Metal detectors could not have prevented Menifield’s fist from flying. What would be the necessary level of security guards? Where they would be positioned? Would it be the cost of one guard per participant? Once the defendants are on notice to provide security, plaintiffs’ lawyers will always be able to argue about the placement of security personnel, or the depth of required background checks, or the adequacy of safety procedures.
Coaches with a criminal conviction and on the lam should not be coaching youth. One wonders if Menifield’s team knew his background, or what responsibility it has in this sorry tale. Major leagues and colleges can provide some level of security to participants and spectators, but during the college football season there are often episodes of fans flooding the field after games. Unfortunately, even that level of security is not possible for youth sports.
Eliminating youth sports is a terrible price to pay to avoid civil liability for criminal conduct. These are societal issues that are not limited to sports, but those in charge of such events must now confront both the possibility of reprehensible criminal conduct, but also the possible financial burden to continue.