Who is Liable for School Sport Injuries?

An injured player watching his team

There’s a reason why schools and parents encourage children to get involved in school sports: they enrich the child’s life. Players learn the value of teamwork, hard work, dedication and discipline. They also get a chance to socialize with other children their age, forging new friendships and bonds.

But just like with any other physical activity, there is always the risk of injury when playing school sports. In many cases, those injuries lead to substantial medical bills. Who covers the cost of medical care when a child is injured playing school sports?

Common School Sport Injuries

Children’s sports injuries account for 2.5 million emergency room visits each year. One study by scientists at the University of North Carolina found that 1 in every 100,000 students will experience a severe or fatal injury or illness from school sports.

While catastrophic injuries are rare, they do occur.

The most common school sport injuries include:

  • Sprains
  • Strains
  • Muscle injuries
  • Heat-related illnesses
  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Head trauma

The majority of injuries (62%) occur during practice – not during games. About a third of parents don’t take the same safety precautions during practice as they do during games. Data also shows that coaches and organizations often take practice less seriously than games when it comes to injuries.

Contact and collision sports, like rugby and football, have higher injury rates. With that said, children who play individual sports, like swimming or gymnastics, may also suffer injuries, and those injuries are often more severe.

It’s important to note that any involvement in a school sport may subject a child to injury or illness, which are considered a par-for-the-course in school sports.

Who is Liable for School Sport Injuries?

If a child is injured while playing a school sport, is the school or the coach liable for the injury?

Generally, if the child has health insurance, treatments for all injuries and rehabilitative care will be covered up to the policy limits. Deductible and co-pay fees may apply, and these costs can add up quickly.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find a coach or a school liable for school sport injuries. Public schools are generally exempt from liability for injuries sustained during sporting events.

There are a few factors at play here that may limit recovery for the parents of injured children:

  • Athletes usually sign a waiver containing a release clause that frees the school of liability. Essentially, the student is acknowledging, or agreeing, that he or she is assuming the risks associated with the sport.
  • Because public schools are considered a federally-funded agency or government agency, they are protected from sports liability.

Of course, liability for public schools differs from that of private schools. Private schools often have their own policies regarding sports and extracurricular activities. In this case, it’s important to consult with the local municipality board or an attorney to determine private school liability.

What if the Coach Acted Negligently?

If a school coach has acted recklessly or negligently, a negligence claim may be filed to recover damages. But in order to succeed, you must be able to prove that:

  • The coach owed the child a duty of care
  • The coach breached that duty of care
  • The breached duty of care caused the child to suffer injuries

For example, a coach failed to provide water to team members despite the soaring temperatures, and students suffered heat exhaustion as a result. If a coach knew of an unsafe or hazardous condition but failed to remedy it, he or she may be held liable for injuries.

Negligent acts can include:

  • Allowing unfit or injured players to compete
  • Allowing players with an unfair advantage to play
  • Allowing an unauthorized person to assist with coaching responsibilities
  • Moving an injured player without proper care
  • Failure to provide players with proper training
  • Inadequate supervision
  • Inadequate on-site emergency medical care
  • Poorly maintained facilities
  • Faulty or unsafe equipment

If the child’s injury came with the normal course of the sport, it will be very difficult to hold anyone else legally responsible for the injuries. As a general rule of thumb, willing participants in sports assume certain dangers that are inherent to the activity.

But if the injuries were the result of an intentional act by another player or the negligence of a coach or facility, there may be a case against that party or parties.

Because this can be a complex area of the law, it may be wise to consult with an attorney before attempting to file a claim, especially if the alleged negligent party is a government actor.

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