Ask The Experts
YOUTH SPORTS AND THE LAW: Treacherous turf
How safe are the football fields your team is playing on this fall? Holes in the ground, loose sod and debris can pose injury risks to your players – and create unwanted lawsuit problems for you.
Q: I’m coaching a 12-and-under youth football team for the first time this season. Most of the fields at the recreation facility where we will play our games are in really good shape, but there are a couple that I noticed are pretty beat up and have some small holes in the ground and some spots where the turf is uneven. I’m afraid that the kids will hurt an ankle or knee if their cleat catches in one of these spots.
As a coach, how do I protect myself from a lawsuit if one of my players is injured on a field I know is not in the best condition? Is it my responsibility to check the field or does that fall to the recreation department? If I mention to the recreation director that the field condition worries me do I need to somehow have proof of my conversation to protect me if something does happen? And what happens if I mention it and nothing gets done – do I send the kids out to play and hope that nothing happens because I tried to protect them?
I would not be comfortable sending the kids out on the field, but if I don’t I would face a huge uproar from all the parents on both teams and my players would be crushed if there wasn’t a game.
A: Coaches have a duty to provide a safe physical environment for athletes and to act as a “reasonably prudent person” would in a similar situation.
Although the recreation facility is directly responsible for the care, custody and control of the property, coaches can be held liable for injuries because they disregarded dangerous field conditions that they knew about or could have discovered through a prudent inspection.
To protect players and avoid claims of negligence and liability for injuries caused by poor field conditions, coaches should survey the playing fields prior to a game or practice. If you identify hazards, report them in writing to the responsible parties – email or text message is fine. Include photos, because they often show the hazard in ways words cannot. That way, everything is documented and those ultimately responsible for field conditions are on notice of the problems.
If those responsible do nothing, you have two options. First, you can fix a simple problem yourself (such as filling in ankle-breaking holes with dirt or removing debris) and notify every player of the repair. But if you undertake to fix a problem, do it effectively and correctly. Once you’ve taken on the responsibility, you’ve intervened and can be just as liable as the field owner if your repair is inadequate and a player sustains an injury because the repair failed to fix the problem.
Second, if the problem is too difficult to fix completely and effectively, re-locate (or cancel) the practice or game and explain to the parents and players why. Player safety is paramount, particularly in youth sports.
Coaches should not allow youth players to practice or play on fields that pose a health risk.
David Langfitt is a partner in the Locks Law Firm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he specializes in complex commercial, mass tort, and fiduciary litigation. He has also litigated multiple patent and copyright infringement claims in federal district and appellate courts. He can be reached at (215) 893-3423 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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