A federal appeals court has ruled in the case of a student-football player who suffered a traumatic brain injury during practice that while there was evidence of state-created danger, the coach did not violate the student’s constitutional rights.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling granting summary judgment in favor of Palmerton Area School District and football coach Christopher Walkowiak.
Sheldon Mann took a hard hit and appeared to his teammates to be concussed, according to Judge Thomas I. Vanaskie’s opinion, but was sent back into practice where he was hit a second time. He was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
Mann’s parents sued, claiming that by allowing him to continue to practice after sustaining the first blow, Walkowiak had violated Mann’s constitutional right to bodily integrity under a state-created danger theory.
The district court found that despite the state-created danger evidence, Walkowiak was entitled to qualified immunity and was dismissed from the suit. The district was also let off the hook, the district court ruled, because the Manns failed to show that the school had a practice in place that would violate Mann’s rights. The Third Circuit affirmed those rulings.
“We agree with the district court’s conclusions pertaining to the claims against the football coach: Walkowiak’s alleged conduct, if proven at trial, would be sufficient to support a jury verdict in favor of Mann on his state-created danger claim,” Vanaskie said, “but the right in question—to be free from deliberate exposure to a traumatic brain injury after exhibiting signs of a concussion in the context of a violent contact sport—was not clearly established in 2011. Accordingly, the district court correctly ruled that Coach Walkowiak was entitled to qualified immunity. We also agree with the district court that the Manns did not present sufficient evidence to warrant a jury trial.”
Vanaskie said that an injured student-athlete has a right to be protected against further harm, and that a school violates that right by putting the student in harm’s way again. However, Vanaskie said, the question is whether that right was clearly established.
“It was not so plainly obvious that requiring a student-athlete, fully clothed in protective gear, to continue to participate in practice after sustaining a violent hit and exhibiting concussion symptoms implicated the student-athlete’s constitutional rights,” Vanaskie said.
Howard Bashman represented the Manns and did not respond to a request for comment.
Defense counsel Thomas A. Specht of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin also did not respond to a request for comment.
(Copies of the 19-page opinion in Mann v. Palmerton Area School District, PICS No. 17-1443, are available at http://at.law.com/PICS.) •