We previously reviewed a Commonwealth Court ruling denying a motion for dismissal of a personal injury case brought against the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), which originated after three students suffered serious concussions while participating in school sports. The PIAA is an organization that oversees youth sports statewide and athlete safety is a core responsibility.
In 2012, the state passed the Safety in Youth Sports Act that implemented standards, penalties and protocol for handling concussions, and assigned duties to the Departments of Health and Education. Concussions are brain injuries resulting from strong impact that can alter normal brain function. They occur with or without losing consciousness and may negatively impact academic performance and cognitive function.
Safety in Youth Sports Act
The Act requires participating students and their parents to sign a document called the Understanding Concussion Risk & Traumatic Brain Injury form acknowledging the potential dangers. Some of the other provisional requirements include:
- Removal from activity: Student showing signs of a concussion are temporarily removed from participation
- Return requirements: Coaches may only allow the student to return after being evaluated and cleared to play by a medical professional in writing
- Training requirements: Coaches must complete concussion training coursework before coaching
- Penalties: Coaches in violation are suspended for the rest of the season. A second violation leads to a suspension for the remainder of the season and the entire following season. A third violation results in permanent suspension.
Allegations Facing PIAA
The civil action cited a host of alleged infractions demonstrated by the PIAA. They were aware of the risks for brain injury, brain damage and potential cognitive outcomes among the student athletes, yet failed in enforcing health safety requirements and protocol for managing concussions. The PIAA is legally obligated to exercise reasonable care for the health and safety of participating students. They are alleged to have breached this duty by not adhering to screening, testing and interpreting provisions. There was a lack of medical personnel and supplies, and the allocated financial resources were dangerously insufficient. Post-concussion care and monitoring was not consistently performed.
Accusation of Gross Negligence
The claim stated the substandard care extended beyond that of ordinary negligence to grossly negligence. PIAA has great knowledge regarding preventing, diagnosing, and treating concussions. They encouraged success in competition recklessly, while deemphasizing the dangers of brain injuries. Parents and athletes developed a false sense of security as the PIAA consciously ignored their duties to enforce and address concussion severity. The PIAA's defense is that the plaintiffs participated knowing the inherent risks they were assuming.
Assumption of Risk (PIAA Defense)
PIAA suggests that a true duty of care does not exist based on an inherent risk assumption. Each student and parent had completed and signed the CIPPE agreement. They acknowledge that interscholastic athletic competition has an inherent risk for injury and recognizes their role to mitigate them. The statement that the students and parents sign in the agreement states they recognize the risks of brain injury associated with competing.