The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is set to deliberate on what standards colleges should adhere to in order to satisfy their duty of care to student-athletes.
The justices in a one-page order recently granted allocatur in Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, agreeing to hear argument specifically on whether Pennsylvania colleges are “required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes,” and whether clauses releasing schools from “any and all liability” in connection with intercollegiate football is enforceable when it comes to negligence claims.
The decision to take up the appeal comes about nine months after the Superior Court determined that two football players could proceed with their claims against Lackawanna College over injuries they sustained during practice.
A unanimous two-judge panel held in February that a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding the players’ assumption of risk when the college employed unqualified medical personnel and the plaintiffs were injured during a tackle drill rather than during a football game. The decision reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Lackawanna College and remanded the case for trial.
Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch were trying out for Lackawanna College’s football team in March 2010 when they were injured performing a variation of the “Oklahoma drill,” which has been criticized in the wake of the National Football League concussion litigation, Judge Jacqueline O. Shogan wrote for the court. Resch suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture when he attempted to make a tackle with his head down. Feleccia endured a “stinger” after his first attempt at a tackle and felt numb in his right shoulder, but was told by defendant Alexis D. Bonisese, a member of the team’s medical staff, that he could return to practice, the opinion said. He then suffered a traumatic brachial plexus avulsion.
The athletes sued Bonisese and Kaitlin M. Coyne, whom the college had hired as athletic trainers and retitled as “first responders” upon realizing that they were not certified or licensed to serve as athletic trainers, the opinion said. They were the only training staff working with the team on the day of the injuries. The college, its athletic director and its coaches were also defendants.
The Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas granted summary judgment based on a waiver the players had signed before the drill and, alternatively, based on the assumption of risk. Feleccia and Resch argued on appeal that the waiver cannot be used as a shield against the claims of gross negligence and recklessness they alleged. The college argued the waiver’s clear language demonstrated the students’ intent to release the college of all liability.
The waiver is valid, Shogan said, but she disagreed with the trial court’s ruling that it is enforceable, finding that the language was insufficiently particular, that the trial court’s analysis of the gross negligence and recklessness claims was “incomplete and incorrect,” and that the college’s failure to have qualified medical personnel on hand left open an issue of material fact for the jury.
“The college owed [the plaintiffs] a duty of care in their capacity as intercollegiate athletes engaged in a school-sponsored and supervised intercollegiate athletic activity,” Shogan said, adding that the duty of care required the presence of qualified medical personnel and that a jury should determine whether the college breached that duty.
She called the college’s arguments that Coyne and Bonisese had statutory immunity as good Samaritans because they were first responders, not athletic trainers, “disingenuous and inapplicable.”
Shogan said that although the plaintiffs were aware of the general risks inherent in playing football, they were unaware of the college’s failure to reasonably assure their safety by providing qualified trainers, so a jury should decide whether they assumed the risk of their injuries. Based on testimony from a plaintiffs expert that the drill had little application to the game of football, Shogan also said a jury should resolve whether it is part of the game so that an injury resulting from the drill is an inherent risk of playing.
Shogan also expressed concern about a waiver excusing a college from having qualified medical personnel available for student-athletes. Granting summary judgment to the defense in a situation where medical personnel are called into question, she said, “would jeopardize the health and safety of such student-athletes by removing at least one incentive for colleges ‘to adhere to minimal standards of care and safety.’”
Havertown attorney Daniel Siegel, who is representing the plaintiffs, said the Supreme Court’s inquiry broadened the issues and that, even though the case does not involve a concussion injury, the case could have an impact on the growing concussion litigations in Pennsylvania.
“They’ve broadened the inquiry and obviously we will address it,” Siegel said. “We look forward to briefing the case. It’s an important issue.”
Eric Schreiner of Kleinbard LLC, who is representing Lackawanna College, did not immediately return a call for comment.