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Third Circuit Affirms Summary Judgement in Favor of Football Coach and School District for Traumatic Brain Injury Based on The State of the Law at the Time of the Injury

September 21st, 2017

In Mann v. Palmerton Area School District, 2017 WL 4172055, (9/21/17), the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a high school football coach and school district.  In November, 2011, a student experienced a hard hit at football practice, and while some players thought he was suffering concussion like symptoms, his coach sent him back into the practice.  He then suffered another violent hit and was removed from practice.  He was later diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.  The school district had a handbook that required any player suffering from injury to be removed from play and sent to the trainer.  The coach testified that he was aware of the symptoms of a concussion and had been trained in how to identify one.  He also testified that he was trained to err on the side of caution when dealing with a student who may have suffered a concussion.

A 1983 action was filed against the coach in his individual capacity as a state actor.  As such, he was entitled to a qualified immunity, which required the court to determine (1) whether the facts alleged by plaintiff made out a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the injury.

Here, plaintiff’s “state created danger” claim derived from the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, which provides that no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty , or property without due process of law.  In order to successfully make out a state created danger claim, plaintiff must plead (1) the harm ultimately caused by state actor’s conduct was foreseeable and fairly direct, (2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience, (3) a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim, or a member of a discreet class of foreseeable victims as opposed to the general public, and (4) the state actor affirmatively used his or her authority to create a danger that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to the danger than if the state had not acted at all.  As to the second element, if the circumstances are highly pressurized with little time for the state actor to deliberate, it is necessary to show intentional harm.  If the state actor had time to deliberate, then plaintiff need only show deliberate indifference.

The court found in plaintiff’s favor on all four elements of state created danger with respect to defendant’s motion for summary judgment.  However, the court found for defendant coach with respect to the second prong of his qualified immunity, vis., that the plaintiff’s right was not clearly established at the time of the injury.  The standard with respect to this element was whether the unlawfulness of defendant’s action would have been apparent at the time it was committed in light of pre-existing law.  The court found no appellate court case decided prior to November of 2011 that would have put the coach on notice that requiring the student to continue to play under similar circumstances violated  student’s constitutional rights.  The court held that “when properly applied, the qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

As to the school district, local governments cannot be held liable under section 1983 for the acts of their employees.  Instead, local governments may be found liable only for their own acts.  Plaintiff must demonstrate that the local government itself, through the implementation of a municipal policy or custom, causes a constitutional violation.  The court found against plaintiff and in favor of the school district.

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