Sports Injuries at School

Millions of students every year suffer sports-related injuries while participating in school activities. These injuries may range from mild to severe. But in any case they can be painful for the child and expensive to treat. School districts may be legally responsible for a student's injuries, based on negligence.

When the school, teacher, coach, or school district is responsible for the student's injuries, they may be required to pay for damages. Damages in a personal injury lawsuit can include:

Knowing how and when it is possible to file a personal injury lawsuit against a school district can be complicated. There may be special timelines and notice requirements for filing a lawsuit against a school.

Below, our personal injury attorneys address frequently asked questions about school sport injuries lawsuits and the injuries you may have suffered:

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Millions of students every year suffer sports-related injuries while participating in school activities.

1. What kinds of sports injuries can occur at school?

In the United States, more than 2.6 million children aged 19 and under are sent to the emergency room with injuries related to sports every year.1 This includes a number of sports-related injuries that occurred at school, on school grounds, or through school-organized team sports.

The types of injuries which can occur as the result of a sports-related accident vary, depending on the age of the participant, sport, and other factors. Common school sports injuries may include:

  • Ankle sprains,
  • Broken bones,
  • Pulled or sprained muscles or tendons,
  • Concussions,
  • Knee injuries,
  • Spinal trauma,
  • Stress fractures,
  • Injuries to the eyes,
  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears,
  • Shoulder damage, and
  • Heat-related sickness.

School injuries can even occur on the way to or from a competition if a school bus is involved in an accident.

1.1. What are the most dangerous school sports?

Any sport has the potential to injure a student. However, certain sports are statistically more likely to cause injury simply because of the nature of the activity, such as in contact sports. Some of the most common sports that lead to injuries include:

  • Football: Football is nearly universally considered the most dangerous youth sport. There is a high concussion rate among young football players, and studies are still coming out showing the dangers of continuous trauma to the brain. Because of the high impact nature of the sport, there are also serious risks to bones, limbs, and the face. 2
  • Lacrosse: Although Lacrosse sees fewer injuries in number per year than many other sports, by percentage the sport can be quite dangerous. There is a high risk of concussions from player collisions, impact with the stick, or impact with the ball. A "body-check" can result in a shoulder injury and other internal damage. 3
  • Wrestling: Wrestling involves intense muscle strain, powerful moves, and body slams which can injure a student. Concussions are again a significant risk, as well as "cauliflower ear" if the proper protection is not worn during a match or during practice. 4
  • Cheerleading: This may seem surprising to some, but cheerleaders are expected to perform complex stunts, tumbling, and tosses. Cheerleading, especially competitive cheerleading, often causes muscle damage, broken bones due to falls, and other severe injuries. 5
  • Basketball: Basketball can be aggressive, but is always meant to be fast-paced. Quick transitions and stops put great strain on leg muscles and joints. Shoulders can be damaged from shooting and head or back injuries may result from falls onto the hard basketball court. 6

Use of school training facilities, such as a gym, fitness center, or workout room, can also be the source of injuries for all school sports. This includes accidents involving slips and falls, lack of supervision, lifting injuries, or workout equipment product defects.

1.2. Are school sports injuries to be expected?

Injuries can happen in the normal course of sporting events and practices. This is something all participants and parents should be prepared for. However, when the injuries are caused by the negligence of the school or some other third party, the injured party may have the legal recourse of filing a personal injury lawsuit.

2. What financial compensation is available after a school sports injury?

Once you and your attorney prove your case against the school district, you can be awarded financial compensation for your injuries and property damage. Compensatory damages include both financial losses associated with the injury, as well as non-economic damages for pain and suffering.

Compensatory damages in a school sports injury lawsuit may include:

  • Medical bills;
  • ER treatment;
  • Surgical costs;
  • Future medical costs, including rehabilitation;
  • Loss of income (if the student has a job or the parents have to take time off work);
  • Loss of future income;
  • Compensation for loss of limbs, scarring, or disfigurement; and
  • Pain and suffering.

Students who have suffered a serious or permanent injury may have to deal with the damages for the rest of their lives. If an injury leaves them disfigured, scarred, or disabled, the students should be compensated for their losses.

In limited circumstances, punitive damages may be available where the accident was intentional or the school tried to cover up some wrongdoing by school officials.

Fatal School Sports Injuries

If a school sports injury resulted in the death of someone you love, a personal representative or the family members can bring a wrongful death lawsuit. Damages in a wrongful death lawsuit can include compensation for the family members and beneficiaries due to the loss of a loved one. Wrongful death lawsuit damages may include:

  • Funeral and burial expenses;
  • Financial losses to the family; and
  • Compensation for loss of support and companionship.

3. When are schools liable for my child's sports injuries?

When a student is injured during a school sports activity, such as a practice or a competitive event, the liability may fall on a number of parties. Teachers, coaches, and school administrators generally have a duty of care to their students. When these individuals fail to follow their duty of care which results in an injury, these defendants may be liable for damages.7

The school district may also be liable for unsafe conditions on school property. When the school does not properly keep school property in a reasonably safe condition which causes an accident, the school may be liable under premises liability laws.8

Even if a coach, facilities manager, or teacher was negligent in causing the injury, the school district may still be liable for damages. Under “Respondeat Superior” laws, an employer can be held vicariously liable for the negligence of their employees.9

Schools can have parents sign waivers in order to allow their children to participate in school sports. While schools can exempt themselves from inherent risks associated with school sports, they may not force you to waive all risks that are not inherent to the sport.

4. What is a waiver of liability form?

A waiver of liability form is a document that parents are often required to sign before their child may participate in a school sport or other activity. These waivers, often called "consent" forms, seek to prevent you from filing a lawsuit against the school in the case of a student's injury arising from "ordinary negligence."

4.1. What is ordinary negligence?

Ordinary negligence includes injuries which happen because of an inherent risk in the sport. When the injury is caused by that inherent risk, the school is likely immune from suit because of the signed waiver or consent form. Inherent risks of some school sports may include:

  • Lacrosse: Accidental strikes from lacrosse sticks or lacrosse balls which cause injury.
  • Football: Injuries which result from tackles, throwing the football, or running.
  • Basketball: Facial injury as a result of a high and hard pass or accidental elbow to the face.

5. What types of risks cannot be waived by the school?

Certain types of risks generally cannot be waived because they are a crucial part of a school's duty to keep students safe from harm.

5.1. Known Defects in Equipment

If a student is injured because a piece of equipment is defective or broken, and the school or a school employee knew of that defect, the school could be held liable for the injuries and resulting damages from the injury.

Example: A weight machine is broken and the coach keeps forgetting to put a sign on it that it is out-of-order. A student athlete is using the machine to work out and the machine drops weights the student, breaking her arm. The school may be liable because the coach was aware of the issue.

Even unknown equipment in sporting equipment or workout equipment may allow parents to file a product liability lawsuit. Product manufacturers, distributors, and sellers are strictly liable for any injuries caused by product defects.10 Product liability lawsuits include:

Example: The swim team had new diving boards installed. A swimmer gets up to dive off the board, which breaks on the first bounce. The swimmer falls and is cut severely on the edge of the broken board. The diving board manufacturer or company that sold the diving board may be liable for damages.

5.2. Improper Maintenance of Field, Court, or Track

Similar to defective equipment, if the school knows of a dangerous condition which exists on one of its fields, courts, or tracks the school may be liable.

Example: A large hole exists in the middle of lane 3 on the track. The school is aware and has done nothing to fix the problem. James lands in the hole after performing a hurdle, breaking his ankle. The school may be liable for James' injuries.

5.3. Inadequate Supervision

If a coach or other instructor fails to properly oversee the students under his or her care, and oversight would have prevented that injury, the school may be held liable for the student's injuries. The level of supervision required can depend on the dangerousness of the activity and the age of the students involved.

Example: Susan is told to use the new weight machine the school recently purchased to work on her shoulder strength for wrestling. The new weight machine is for professional athletes and there was an extensive training manual on how to safely use the machine. Susan is not instructed how to use it or told to review the manual, and the coach does not supervise her at any time while she is using it.
Susan damages her rotator cuff because she attempted too much weight whild using the unfamiliar machine. If she had been propertly supervised or instructed on how to use the machine properly, she would not likely have been hurt. The school could be liable because she was not adequately instructed and was left unsupervised.

5.4. Coach and Staff Negligence

Negligence, especially gross negligence, on the part of a coach or other staff can be a basis for filing a personal injury lawsuit to recover damages on a student's behalf. This could result from improper training techniques, overstretching or overexerting a student, or other conduct outside the scope of the staff member's training and experience which causes injury.

Example: Coach Jensen forces his football team to run wind sprints non-stop for 2 hours. It is 95 degrees outside. Students have asked for water, but the coach tells them not until he's done with the workout. Two students collapse from heat exhaustion and possible heat stroke, requiring medical treatment. The coach's extreme training measures and failure to ensure proper hydration could subject the school to liability.

5.5. Intentional Harm

Liability waivers generally do now excuse intentionally harming a student. If a coach, teacher, or supervisor hits a student or throws something at a student, that individual may be liable for intentional harm caused by assault or battery.

Example: Coach Smiley is the coach of the school soccer team. None of the students are doing the drills he told them to do and are just out playing around. Coach Smiley is frustrated and kicks a ball hard at a student, hitting him in the face and breaking a tooth. Coach Smiley may be liable for assault and battery for intentionally putting the student in harm's way and causing an injury.

6. How do I file a personal injury lawsuit against the school?

There are multiple steps which must be taken to file a personal injury lawsuit against a school. First, it must be determined who is responsible for the student's sports injury. This could be:

  • A coach,
  • A staff instructor,
  • Another student,
  • The school itself, or
  • Manufacturer of equipment which caused injury.

In some cases, there are multiple defendants which all share in part or all of the liability for the student's injuries. An experienced personal injury attorney at the Shouse Law Group can help you determine which parties are appropriate to name as part of your lawsuit.

In many jurisdictions, lawsuits against government organizations, including a school district, require a "notice" of some kind to be filed. This notice requirement may be subject to the strict guidelines set up by each state, county, city, or local government agency. There may also be strict timelines in which to file a claim or risk losing the chance to recover damages.

6.1. What do I have to prove at trial?

At trial, a plaintiff must prove that the school or its employees are responsible for the student's injuries, and that liability is not waived or subject to immunity. Many school sports require parents to sign some sort of waiver or consent form. However, there are acts which cannot be waived, as discussed above. Liability can be proven by showing that an exception to immunity exists, and that some negligence on the part of the school or its employee caused the injury in question.

6.2. What is the assumption of the risk doctrine?

Schools will often argue that a student and his or her parents "assume the risk" of any inherent dangers of a sport. This means that injuries which occurred as the natural result of the sport itself are typically not going to create school liability.

However, if the injury was the result of an intentional act of another player outside of the sport, you might have an action against that player. Alternatively, if the injury resulted from an act or omission by the school which is not in the ordinary course of the sport, the school cannot hide behind the assumption of the risk doctrine to avoid liability.

6.3. What is sovereign immunity?

Sovereign immunity is a principle of law which protects "political subdivisions" such as state, county, or local governments from suit in most cases. Schools are political subdivisions which are immune to many types of lawsuits. However, most sovereign immunity laws carve out exceptions which allow for personal injury claims against the school. For more discussion of lawsuits against governmental entities, please see our article on filing a lawsuit under the California Torts Claims Act

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For questions about school sports injuries or to confidentially discuss your case with one of our skilled California personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at the Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Legal References:

  1. SafeKids. Sports and Recreation Safety Fact Sheet (2015).
  2. NCAA. Football Injuries.
  3. UPMC. Lacrosse Injuries, Treatment, and Prevention Tips.
  4. Stop Sports Injuries. Preventing Wrestling Injuries.
  5. Huffington Post. Cheerleading: A Major Cause of Brain Injuries.
  6. Physioworks. Basketball Injuries.
  7. See, e.g., California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a) (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”)
  8. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) (2017) 1000. Premises Liability. Essential Factual Elements.
  9. Perez v. Van Groningen & Sons Inc. (1986) 41 Cal.3d 962, 967 (“Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously liable for his employee's torts committed within the scope of the employment.”)
  10. See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) Series 1200 -- Products Liability.

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