Ask The Experts
YOUTH SPORTS AND THE LAW: Equipment inspections
Help protect your participants – and your department – with a written equipment inspection protocol
Q: If I approve a piece of equipment that I think looks fine and it turns out to be defective and results in an injury to a child am I in trouble even though I did everything I could to ensure the kids’ safety?
A: The manufacturer is primarily responsible for a product that is unsafe for its intended use or is improperly manufactured. Therefore, the better the inspection protocol and the care with which it is implemented, the better the program will be if a player or parent brings a claim regarding a defective piece of gear.
When you receive new equipment, check to see whether any of it is misshapen, missing any parts, or should be returned.
While you or the coaches may miss something, implementing the inspection protocol to the best of your ability will assist in the program's defense. It will also help the parties focus on the fact that the manufacturer had provided a faulty piece of equipment that your reasonable inspection did not detect.
Also, make sure the program carries a sufficient primary liability policy and an excess liability policy in case something catastrophic happens since catastrophic injuries do occur in youth football.
Your recreation department may be part of a public or private entity, but either way, you want to confirm that the program is well insured and covered within the liability policy selected by the entity.
If possible, choose a liability policy that allows you to select counsel of your choice, not the insurance company's designee. While this type of policy is more expensive, it means you'll be able to choose and retain a lawyer whose duty of loyalty will be to the program exclusively and not to the insurance company.
Q: I just took over a recreation department that has a large football program. We provide all the equipment for the kids but since I’m under-staffed it is just about impossible for me to thoroughly check every piece of equipment to ensure that it isn’t defective and is safe for the kids to wear. If I make it clear to the coaches to inspect the equipment for their respective teams does that eliminate our department’s risk of being found liable should an unfortunate injury occur to a child that is related to a defective piece of equipment?
A: If someone suffers a terrible injury, nothing you do regarding equipment will prevent a lawsuit. But with players at every level of the game becoming bigger, faster and stronger, you can prevent injury and put the program in the best possible position if a tragic injury (and litigation) arises.
The most important priority is to protect youth players from short- and long-term injury. I recommend that you implement a written equipment inspection protocol with a specific checklist for yourself, coaches and assistant coaches to follow.
Make sure everyone understands the goals of the protocol, and their specific inspection tasks, including what to check for and what to do in the event they discover something unsafe. The equipment manufacturers themselves may have such a checklist or may be able to prepare one for you.
Then, make sure you and the coaches carry out the protocol and confirm the inspections in writing. While it won't prevent a lawsuit if something terrible happens, like the failure of a helmet, face-mask or shoulder pad, it will help to protect the youth players. It will also demonstrate that the program operated with safety as a priority, doing everything possible to identify the defective piece of equipment it received from the manufacturer.
Most importantly, it will help the youth players, parents and program by preventing accidents from happening.
It’s important to note that while the failure of a piece of equipment will not prevent the program from being a defendant in a lawsuit, the manufacturer of the equipment would be primarily liable if it provided defective equipment.
Used equipment that has been modified, is outdated, or past its useful life should be discarded and, if possible, replaced with modern equipment that has the best safety rating for youth sports. It's a long-term investment that will pay off as it better protects the players.
David Langfitt is a partner in the Locks Law Firm in Philadelphia, Pa. where he specializes in complex commercial, mass tort and fiduciary liability cases. He has also litigated multiple patent and copyright infringement claims in federal district and appellate courts. He is a member of the European Paintings Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, former Chair of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, and a member of the Board of Directors of Episcopal Community Services. He can be reached at (215) 893-3423 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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