A state appellate court has refused to block a proposed class action over concussion-related injuries against Pennsylvania’s governing body for high school sports.
The Commonwealth Court on Tuesday denied the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Inc.’s bid to stop a proposed class action that was lodged by two former high school football players and a softball player. The ruling in Hites v. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association affirmed a decision from the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas that determined the case should not be tossed out at the preliminary objection phase, but should proceed to discovery on several issues.
Chief among those issues, the PIAA had argued that, because the plaintiffs knew of the inherent risks of the sports, it did not owe the players a duty of care. However, writing for the Commonwealth Court’s unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Robert Simpson said dismissing the case based on the “inherent risk/no duty” rule would be premature.
“Our review of the averments set forth in the complaint reveals that plaintiffs do not focus on the initial contact itself, concussions incurred, and the usual resulting harm. Instead, plaintiffs also allege they suffered harm as a result of the PIAA’s alleged pre- and post-concussion negligent conduct,” Simpson said.
N. Scott Carpenter of Carpenter & Schumacher, who, along with Rebecca Bell-Stanton, represented the plaintiffs, said he was pleased with the court’s decision.
“The position we’ve taken is there’s not enough being done after the concussive injury,” Carpenter said. “We hope, through this case, that significant change will come about to where these kids are better protected and receive much more medical care.”
Dr. Robert A. Lombardi, executive director of the PIAA, noted the lower court had dismissed other claims that the plaintiffs brought.
“We have always [been a] believer that the coaches, athletic trainers and school medical personnel are the best judges for the medical care of athletes and return-to-play decisions,” Lombardi said. “We’ve always felt this PIAA has always acted in the best interest of our student athletes and safety is priority one.”
Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani attorney Andrew Kimball represented the PIAA.
The proposed statewide class action suit is being spearheaded by plaintiffs Jonathan Hites, Kaela Zingaro and Samuel Teolis, on behalf of Domenic Teolis, who is a minor. According to Simpson, Hites and Teolis both claimed to sustain serious concussions while playing football, and Zingaro contends she sustained a concussion when she hit her head on the ground while attempting a dive catch in softball.
In its preliminary objections to the suit, the PIAA said it had no duty to protect the students, the plaintiffs failed to show its conduct was a proximate cause of the injuries and Pennsylvania’s Safety in Youth Sports Act meant that the claims were outside the scope of the court’s consideration.
While the sports body argued each plaintiff’s treatment by school and medical personnel made it impossible to link any specific link between injuries and the PIAA’s conduct, Simpson said the plaintiffs had pleaded sufficient facts regarding the PIAA’s alleged pre- and post-concussion conduct to proceed with the claims.
Simpson rejected the argument that the statute left no issues for the courts to address.
“While the SYSA adds certain responsibilities to school entities and school employees, it does not purport to alter any immunity which may currently exist for them,” Simpson said. “In sum, there is no indication that the General Assembly, through enactment of the SYSA, intended to eliminate civil suits such as the suit filed by plaintiffs here.”
Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.