One area of the law our California personal injury lawyers are following with interest is the protection of underage athletes from concussions and other sports injuries.
In the United States, an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) every year. And according to the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, more than 11,000 children age 9 to 18 sustained sport-related concussions in 2015.
You may recall that earlier this year, the Journal of the American Medical Association ("JAMA") published a study of the brains of deceased former NFL players. The study found that of the 111 players whose brains were examined, 110 showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that can cause mood and behavioral disturbances as well as cognitive impairment. Symptoms - which can include progressive dementia - may not appear for many years.
Although a single head injury is unlikely to cause CTE, concussions are still a cause for concern. Left untreated, they can lead to swelling of the brain or bleeding hours - or even days - after the initial trauma, with unpredictable effects on mood and behavior. And athletes who begin playing contact sports at younger ages are at greater risk of developing CTE.
How does California law protect children from concussions?
California law requires schools and youth organizations to take steps to ensure that underage athletes do not play with a concussion. The laws apply not only to contact sports such as football and basketball, but also to all athletic activities, including (without limitation) diving, BMX, cheerleading, water polo and rodeo.
If an underage athlete is even suspected of sustaining a concussion or other head injury, the child must immediately be removed from the activity for the remainder of the day. The child may not thereafter be allowed to return to athletic activity until receiving written clearance from a licensed health care provider.*
Additionally, if the health care provider determines that the athlete did, in fact, sustain a concussion or a head injury, the athlete must complete a graduated return-to-play protocol. The protocol must last at least seven days and be followed under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.
Finally, California schools must take steps to educate parents and children about concussions and head injuries before an athlete initiates practice or competition and thereafter on a yearly basis.
What steps can I take to protect my child from concussions?
You can help your child prevent concussions and other brain injuries by:
- Educating your child about the signs of concussion;
- Encouraging your child to play by the rules;
- Making sure your child feels comfortable reporting symptoms of a possible concussion; and
- Encouraging your child to support his or her teammates in sitting out if they exhibit any symptoms of concussion, including:
- One pupil larger than the other,
- Drowsiness or inability to wake up,
- A headache that gets worse and does not go away,
- Slurred speech, weakness, numbness, or decreased coordination,
- Repeated vomiting or nausea, convulsions or seizures (shaking or twitching),
- Unusual behavior, increased confusion, restlessness, or agitation, and/or
- Loss of consciousness (however brief).
What can I do if my child is injured while playing sports in California?
California's laws on concussions impose an affirmative duty of care on schools and youth organizations to follow proper anti-concussion protocols. Someone who breaches this duty of care may be liable for both economic damages, such as medical bills, and damages for "non-economic" losses, such as scarring and pain and suffering.
And unlike some states (such as Nevada), there is no cap in California on damages for pain and suffering, except in medical malpractice cases.
Additionally, if a coach or someone in a similar position willfully fails to follow California's protocols, the school or youth organization could be liable for punitive damages in addition to the plaintiff's other losses.
California has no cap on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded in a personal injury case.