Sports Injury Liability in Youth Sports: Why it matters.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, U.S. children ages 14 and younger sustain roughly 3.5 million sports injuries each year that cause some loss of participation time, and almost one-third of all injuries incurred in childhood are related to sports activities.
Below, we dive into the various types of insurance relevant in youth sports and describe how each type of coverage is relevant to parents, coaches and administrators. The wide array of injury types and scenarios makes it difficult to understand the insurance risks associated with each situation, but failing to learn and prepare proactively is NOT an option (unless you enjoy planning to pay for unknown and avoidable medical and legal expenses).
Types of Sports Injury Insurance
To understand the complex world of insurance in youth sports, we will start with a basic injury scenario and then build on top of that with additional layers of nuance to show how and when specific types of insurance come into play and the impact on a variety of roles:
Roles: Jen, a 12-year old girl playing in a recreational youth soccer league, will be the focal point of our scenario(s).
Scenario 1 (Baseline Scenario): Let’s start with a common scenario in youth sports. Jen is running down the sideline chasing after a pass from her teammate. The ball is rolling out of bounds, and Jen slides to save it. As she begins her slide, an opposing player also makes an effort for the ball and strikes Jen’s ankle with her cleat, spraining Jen’s ankle in the process. Jen’s coach (John) removes Jen from the game, and a trainer (Rachel) provides immediate treatment and care. Rachel then advises Jen and her parents (Mike and Michelle) to consult a doctor (Dave) for further diagnosis and treatment.
Let’s start with the easy stuff, shall we? In the example above, Jen’s ankle will require proper treatment and care to ensure she makes a full recovery. Who has to pay for the medical expenses in this case? Since this injury occurred in the ordinary circumstances of playing soccer, Jen and her parents may not hold the soccer league, or the other player and her parents liable (responsible for Jen’s medical expenses). As a result, Jen’s parents and their health insurance provider have sole responsibility for the medical expenses.
The above result is due to the ‘assumption of risk’ legal doctrine, which applies to the majority of injuries that occur in youth sports. Basically, you assume the risk of incurring injuries associated with a particular sport when you sign up.
Scenario 2: Now, what if Jen’s ankle injury turns out to be a compound fracture requiring extensive rehab and a specialized boot for walking?
It is worth noting that all health insurance policies are not created equal – often, basic health insurance plans will not cover the costs of rehabilitation and more specialized types of healthcare treatment and equipment. Therefore, parents of youth athletes should purchase a low or no-deductible health insurance plan. Low or no-deductible plans provide more comprehensive coverage compared to high-deductible plans but are more expensive. So, while Jen’s parents will likely have to pay a higher monthly premium for a low or no-deductible plan, they can feel safer knowing they are at a lower risk of having to pay out of pocket for expensive medical bills if Jen sustains a serious injury.
Jen’s parents (Mike and Michelle) should ensure that they have the right health insurance by talking to their insurance company to understand their plan details and identify where gaps in coverage might exist. Additionally, parents can visit medicalbillingandcoding.org to understand the cost and coverage differences across plans –for guidance on understanding these complexities, along with a list of resources to consult for examining cost components of various plan options.
While Jen’s parents purchase health insurance for Jen, there are two critical types of insurance purchased by the sports organization: 1) Accident Insurance and 2) General Liability insurance (‘GL’). While sports organizations typically purchase other insurance policies on top of Accident Insurance and General Liability Insurance to maximize their protection (Directors & Officers Liability and Crime Insurance are two prime examples), we will focus on Accident and GL Insurance because of their relevance to injury-specific lawsuits.
Scenario 3: Let’s now fast forward in time – assume Jen is fortunate enough to earn a college soccer scholarship. In her first collegiate soccer game, Jen sustains the same injury detailed in Scenario 1 above. Jen’s parents breathe easier knowing they have coverage for Jen’s medical expenses with health insurance, but they wonder if the school has an athletic insurance policy which may help cover some of the costs.
The key consideration here is that every institution is different and the accident insurance policy terms will vary by school. For example, Dr. David Grier, an orthopedic surgeon, and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, SC, examined the insurance policy difference between two notable Alabama state colleges, Alabama and Auburn.
The difference in insurance policies between two large institutions in the same state further reinforces the need for parents with athletes heading into collegiate athletics to ask the coaching staff and school administrators what the school’s accident insurance policy covers specifically. While the NCAA requires all its member schools to ensure athletes have insurance for sports-related injuries, the schools themselves do not always pay for that insurance which puts the burden on student-athletes and their parents to pay for injury-related expenses. Specifically, parents should be aware of what is covered under their health insurance policy AND what is covered under the school or organization’s accident insurance policy to make sure there are no significant gaps in coverage.
General Liability Insurance
What happens when the youth sports organization and/or its employee(s) are to blame for injury expenses?
In these instances, if anyone at a sports event is injured due to the negligence of the youth sports organization, general liability insurance will cover the relevant expenses on behalf of the organization and its employees, including league administrators, coaches and volunteers.
Scenario 4: Let’s rewind to Jen’s younger days as a 12-year old playing in a youth recreation soccer league. Assume Jen incurs medical expenses for an injury she sustained due to the negligence of one or more of the youth sports organization’s employees. Jen and her parents may file a lawsuit to recover medical costs from all parties who are to blame, or Jen and her parents could use their insurance to cover the expenses and let the insurance company recover the expenses from the organization and its employee(s).
To win a lawsuit against the organization and receive compensation for Jen’s medical expenses related to the organizations’ negligence, Jen and her parents must prove that the organization was negligent OR an employee of the organization was negligent and the employee was acting in his capacity within the organization.
In order for a plaintiff (in this case, Jen and her parents) to win a negligence lawsuit, he/she must prove the core elements of negligence against the defendant (in this case, the sports organization), whether it be at the group level (i.e., school, league, organization) or the individual level (e.g., coach, medical trainer, referee, staff worker). So Jen’s parents and their attorney must prove the following components of negligence were present for the youth sports organization to be held liable.
1.A duty of care was owed: A duty of care arises out of a special relationship (mother and daughter, coach and athlete, doctor and patient), or when someone without a duty of care voluntarily assumes that duty through actions and is negligent in providing care. If this component is true, we move to the next component.
2. A duty of care was breached: Next, Jen and her parents must prove a breach of the duty of care. Whether a breach occurred depends on whether the defendant failed to meet the applicable standard of care, which is a combination of statutory law, industry practices, and common sense. The standard of care varies depending on the qualifications and expertise of someone in a particular position. For example, an athletic trainer would be expected to know more about certain health conditions than a coach or parent, and thus be held to a higher standard of care when the issue of negligence relates to diagnosis and treatment of injuries.
The following are common examples of breach in sports injury lawsuits:
- Lack of supervision: The most prevalent category of suits in youth sports, the term “supervision” is divided into two main components: 1) general supervision and 2) specific supervision.The general supervision part applies to the management level of any sports league, tournament or organization (i.e., administrators and boards members) who own the high-level risk management responsibilities. These individuals must create and document a risk management plan – among other necessary steps – to properly meet the required standards of care needed to hold up in court. In our scenario above, the board administrators, Jim, Jill, and Jack, would be responsible for general supervision.On the other hand, specific supervision pertains to those who are in ‘direct contact’ with the sports participants, which includes coaches and other hands-on staff members (in our scenario, John, and Rachel). Suits in this domain cover the responsibilities of on-site supervisors typically involved in 1v1 or small group interactions with youth athletes.
- Lack of instruction: Coaches take on the bulk of the safety instruction responsibilities. Their core job is to teach young athletes the accepted practices of safe play. If John, Rachel’s coach, fails to teach Jen and her teammates the proper safety practices, the sports organization could be proven negligent if an injury resulted from an unsafe action by Jen or her teammates.
- Failure to warn of risk: A waiver/release form is the critical document involved here – administrators will usually protect themselves from these kinds of lawsuits with a risk warning provision included in the waiver/release document. In our scenario, the board administrators (Jim, Jill, and Jack) should carefully construct a waiver/release form documenting the injury risks associated with playing soccer and have all parents and guardians sign and return the form.
- Improper injury care: This applies to negligence both before and after an injury has occurred. Preinjury prevention requires that an athlete obtain a preseason screening or physical before engaging in formal competition. Preinjury planning requires the proper resources to be accessible to participants, including first aid kits and other injury care resources at the competition site. Finally, post-injury management covers the injury assessment, monitoring, and ongoing treatment processes. While the board administrators (Jim, Jill, and Jack) could be at fault for not properly mandating all participants obtain a physical or providing the necessary on-site treatment at the playing facilities, the trainer (Rachel) could be at fault for not adhering to the proper post-injury treatment protocol if that resulted in further medical costs.
- Equipment-related injury: These lawsuits typically impact multiple parties, which can include 1) equipment manufacturers/distributors in the event of an equipment failure resulting from faulty production and transportation AND 2) coaches/managers if the equipment was not used or worn properly. While a major sports equipment manufacturer is not mentioned in our scenario above, Jen’s coach (John) could be held liable if he improperly directs Jen and her teammates on how to use/wear soccer gear and that misuse results in injury.
- Facility-related injury: The most likely example of these lawsuits stems from poor field structure and layout, improper use of the field’s intended design and inadequate maintenance and repair. The board administrators (Jim, Jill, and Jack) could be liable if an injury results from an unsafe playing surface or unsafe playing conditions, so they must adhere to facility maintenance standards for their soccer fields.
3. The breach caused the injury and resulted in damages: After proving a duty of care was owed and was breached, the plaintiff then must show a causal connection between a negligent act and the injury that occurred, which results in some form of damage (harm) to the victim. Causation exists when the plaintiff can show that the defendant’s actions were (1) the cause-in-fact (the “but for cause,” or actual cause) of the plaintiff’s injury, and (2) the injury resulting from the defendant’s action was a foreseeable result of such actions. To continue referencing our scenario above, if John (Jen’s coach) improperly puts Jen back in too soon after suffering a recent head injury, and Jen sustains another head injury, a jury could find that John’s actions contributed to the cause-in-fact of Jen’s second head injury, and the second head injury was a foreseeable result of the John returning Jen to play too soon.
Scenario 5: As discussed above in Scenario 4, General Liability insurance is the policy that would protect the sports organization if the organization itself, or one of the organization’s employees, was proven to be negligent. Thus, Jen and her family would not have to pay out of pocket for Jen’s medical expenses, and the organization would have to pay a deductible which is much less than the expenses paid by the insurance provider under the GL policy.
Now, let’s assume that Jen’s coach, John, was the specific employee who was negligent in Scenario 4. Is John off the hook because the sports organization had General Liability insurance, which covered the payments for Jen’s medical expenses? The answer is, not necessarily.
If John were negligent because he violated a policy of the sports organization, the organization might have a claim against the coach for the damages resulting from his negligence (which then belongs to the insurance provider after it pays on the GL policy claim). So, after the insurance company paid out damages to Jen and her family for the medical expenses, the insurance company might then pursue John to recover those damages paid (which is one more reason youth sports employees and volunteers must understand and comply with sports organizations’ policies and procedures).
Conclusion: Why Player’s Health?
Due to the complex and nuanced nature of liability in youth sports injuries, preparing for and managing the risk of injury can be a challenge for all parties involved, including parents on behalf of their children and sports organizations on behalf of their employees and volunteers.
Player’s Health is a company dedicated to helping youth sports organizations manage that risk proactively, while also helping parents actively manage and track their child’s injury status.
Youth sports organizations use the Player’s Health mobile platform to assure no athlete returns to play without receiving the proper medical care, which starts with obtaining a complete picture of a child’s medical background. Through Player’s Health’s technology solution, coaches, trainers, and other league administrators can track a child’s medical record over time, enabling them to get a full understanding of any child’s pre-existing medical conditions to improve risk management and injury treatment for all youth athletes in their organization.
From the athlete’s vantage point, the Player’s Health mobile platform also empowers parents to manage their child’s medical conditions. With real-time communication of injuries, parents, and in turn healthcare providers, are constantly informed with a real-time, holistic understanding of any injury, which leads to better treatment and faster recovery.