Appeals Court Issues Decision Discussing School District Liability for Student Head Injuries
Today, in Stahr v. Lincoln Sudbury Reg’l High Sch. Dist., the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal of a former student-athlete’s claims against the Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School District for injuries sustained during a varsity field hockey practice. The court dismissed the claims based on its determination that they fit the exception in § 10(j) of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, G.L. c. 258 (the “Act”). The outcome in this case highlights the limits of public employer liability under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, particularly where the public employer is not the direct cause of the injury. It also serves to remind school districts of the importance of implementing and adhering to proper concussion protocols as required under G.L. c. 111, § 222, and 105 C.M.R. 201.00.
Massachusetts Tort Claims Act
Under the Act, public employers – including school districts – may be held liable for injuries caused by the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of a public employee acting within the scope of their employment. Despite the general rule, there are several exceptions in the Act that shield public employers from liability in certain situations.
Under one common exception, a district generally can’t be held liable for its actions (or lack of action) to prevent or diminish the consequences of a harmful condition or situation where the district did not “originally cause” the harmful condition or situation. See G.L. c. 258, § 10(j). This exception often comes into play when an injury is caused by a third party, such as another student. The question then becomes whether the district “originally caused” the condition or situation that led to the injury.
When does a school district “originally cause” a condition or situation?
Under Supreme Judicial Court precedent, the district has to take some “affirmative action” that “materially” contributes to creating the harmful condition or situation. See Cormier v. Lynn, 479 Mass. 35 (2018). The courts won’t hold a district liable if its action is too attenuated or if the district simply failed to prevent a harmful situation from arising.
The Stahr Case
In Stahr, the Lincoln Sudbury girls’ varsity field hockey team participated in a practice drill introduced and supervised by an alumna player acting as a volunteer coach. The players were not warned or instructed as to techniques that could endanger other players prior to the drill. During the drill, a student was struck in the face by a teammate’s field hockey stick. The head varsity coach was present on the field but was not actively supervising at the time. The blow knocked out two of the student’s teeth, caused her to lose consciousness, and resulted in a concussion.
The student’s family argued that the head coach’s decision to allow an untrained volunteer coach to supervise a new drill was the “original cause” of the student’s injury. The court disagreed, finding that the head coach’s decision was too attenuated from the actual collision that directly caused the injury. The court also refused to hold the district liable for the coaches’ alleged “lack of supervision” and “inadequate instruction” prior to the drill. Both were omissions, not affirmative acts. As such, the court likened the student’s claim to “an attempt to hold the [district] liable for failing to ensure [the student’s] safety during field hockey practice.”
The family also argued that the district was negligent in its failure to implement and follow a concussion protocol as required by G.L. c. 111, § 222, and 105 C.M.R. 201.00. After the impact, the head coach failed to take any steps to mitigate the effects of a possible concussion and did not notify the student’s parents of the proper protocol to follow in the event of a suspected concussion. The student did not receive her concussion diagnosis until five days later. Upon her return to school, she was not placed on a graduated reentry plan and her academic performance suffered over an extended period of time. She ultimately withdrew from the district.
The court held that the district could not be held liable for its failure to implement and adhere to proper concussion protocols as required by Massachusetts law. Because the failure was an omission, as opposed to an “affirmative act,” it could not be considered the “original cause” of the injury. Similarly, because the failure was an omission, it could not be classified as a “negligent intervention.”
Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Head Injury Law
Even though the school district could not be held liable in this case, the facts demonstrate why it is imperative that schools comply with the requirements set forth in the G.L. c. 111, § 222, and its implementing regulations located at 105 C.M.R. 201.00.
The regulations require all schools to have policies and procedures in place governing the prevention and management of sports-related head injuries. Such policies must have provisions including, but not limited to:
- annual training in the prevention and recognition of sports-related head injuries;
- instructions to coaches, athletic trainers, and volunteers to teach form, techniques, and skills and promote protective equipment use to minimize sports-related head injury;
- procedures for reporting head injuries or suspected concussions sustained during extra-curricular athletic activities to the school nurse and licensed athletic trainer;
- procedures for identifying a head injury or suspected concussion, removing an athlete from practice or competition, and referring for medical evaluation; and
- procedures for the development and implementation of post-concussion graduated reentry plans to school and academic activities.
See 105 C.M.R. 201.006(A). If you have any questions about these requirements, or about school law generally, please contact any of our attorneys.
This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.