Danger in the Wrestling Room - by Jack Connelly & Micah LeBank

Trial News

May 1, 2009

DANGER IN THE WRESTLING ROOM – OR RATHER THE CAFETERIA

Modern Assumption of Risk in Washington

Coaches must allow a reasonable amount of space during team drills. A wrestler landing on other wrestlers during team drills can and should always be avoided.

By: John R. ("Jack") Connelly and Micah R. LeBank

No one expects to send their child off to school only to return home with a permanent life altering injury. But if the injury occurs during an athletic activity can a person bring a claim? Does participation in athletics mean that you have assumed the risk that caused the harm? Does it mean that you have assumed the harm that occurs? Many of us have participated in athletic activities in high school and college and continue to be athletes. The competitive spirit of athletics often draws individuals into trial work where they continue to push themselves mentally and sometimes physically against worthy opponents. Athletic activities provide opportunities for young students to learn discipline, self-reliance, teamwork, as well as physical fitness and many other virtues. That is not to say that athletics are not without inherent risks that can cause injury. Distinguishing between inherent risks and negligent or non-inherent risks is an important part of bringing a case for an injury during athletics.

The old adage of in loco parentis provides parents with assurance that the school will provide the same level of care that they would have provided. A school district has an obligation to provide reasonably safe facilities, equipment, and coaching staff. They also have an obligation to perform appropriate safety and risk management. Unfortunately, "it has been said that ‘the most important task for sport administrators may be the most overlooked, legal management that implements risk management strategies.’" Another important aspect of providing safe athletic programs is ensuring that the coaches are properly trained and that they understand how to appropriately analyze and eliminate risks. In the State of Washington the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) sets the minimum training requirements for coaches that include training in safety and risk management. When risk management systems are not in place and there are no checks to make sure that the coaches are attending the required training programs injuries become more likely. Assuming that a coach is qualified merely because he or she participated in the sport does not meet the standard of care. This is particularly important in contact sports such as wrestling.

Analysis of the law regarding assumption of risk is particularly important when handling a case involving a sport such as wrestling. Wrestling is a form of hand to hand combat and injuries can and will occur as a result of participation in the sport. Wrestling is an age old sport which dates back to early Greek times. It is tremendously physically challenging and provides a unique opportunity for students to push themselves both mentally and physically. While injuries in wrestling can occur they are actually significantly less frequent than in football, baseball, and cheerleading. The Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research noted that due to the incidence of catastrophic injuries in wrestling ensuring that the coaches are properly trained is of the utmost importance.

High school wrestling coaches should be experienced in the teaching of the proper skills of wrestling and should attend coaching clinics to keep up-dated on new teaching techniques and safety measures. They should also have experience and training in the proper conditioning of their athletes. These measures are important in all sports, but there are a number of contact sports, like wrestling, where the experience and training of the coach is of the utmost importance. Full speed wrestling in physical education classes is a questionable practice unless there is proper time for conditioning and the teaching of skills.

In addition to having well trained safety conscious coaches, it is also important to have safe facilities. Wrestling programs throughout Washington have wrestling rooms with wall-to-wall mats, padded walls, and, in most cases, various types of underlayment beneath the mats. Proper planning by the coach is also extremely important in creating a safe wrestling practice.

On January 26, 2007 Mackenzie Simon ("Mac") Clay was participating in a wrestling practice at West Seattle High School. In previous years, the school had conducted its practices in the gymnasium with mats placed on a wooden gym floor. During the 2006-2007 school year the school administration decided to move the team to the school cafeteria and placed the mats on a hard concrete floor in the middle of the cafeteria. The coach had been at the school for eleven years, but had not attended the minimum training courses required by the WIAA and was not certified. This had managed to slip through the school administrators as there was no formal risk management being conducted at either the district or school level.

The practices had been switched to the school cafeteria without any proactive analysis whatsoever as to whether such a move increased the potential of injury to the participating students. The coaches rolled out a single 40 x 40 wrestling mat, neglecting to use available additional mats (leaving them sitting against the wall), and placed numerous student wrestlers on the mat in an area normally used by two wrestlers for a match. They then had the students perform a double leg takedown drill which, because of the students’ need to avoid falling on the surrounding concrete floor, caused them to drive toward the center of the mat – directly toward other wrestlers moving in different directions. The students had never been taught standard procedures to avoid collisions. On the day Mac Clay was injured two larger students were placed directly in the center of the mat in close proximity to every other pair of students. Mac, a bright, young student, a member of the team, a cellist with the Seattle Youth Symphony and the valedictorian of his school class, was paired at the time with a new, novice student. Unsupervised, the new student was not performing the drill properly and was driving Mac in an overly aggressive manner well outside of their practice circle and toward the center of the mat where the larger students were located. Mac was aggressively and improperly picked up, driven straight backwards, well out of his area into the area occupied by the two larger students and then essentially football "tackled" downward. As he was falling Mac was struck from behind by the two larger students from the center circle who were driving in the opposite direction. All of them were outside of their practice circles. Mac was hit from behind and broke his neck. He is now a permanent quadriplegic.

The question was whether a collision between pairs of wrestlers during a wrestling practice was a risk that was inherent in the sport of wrestling or one that was created or unduly enhanced by the coach and district’s conduct. The Defendant also argued that because Mac and his parents had signed a parental consent form that listed spinal cord injuries as a potential injury that he had assumed the risk of a spinal cord injury during a wrestling practice. Thus, distinguishing between risks and harms became an important part of the analysis. A spinal cord injury is a harm that can result from a myriad of risks. A person cannot assume a harm absent a risk that caused that harm. Defendants experts had testified at depositions that collisions can and do occur. However, they all used safety strategies in their own practices and facilities to avoid collisions and to minimize the opportunity for contact – especially between wrestlers who were not paired together. These strategies included things such as synchronizing the movements of wrestlers so that they were moving in a unified direction, using spotters, staggering starts ( i.e. having pairs of wrestlers performing drills at slightly different times when space was limited.), or instructing wrestlers regarding maintaining a field of vision when drilling. These strategies were not employed by the coaching staff at West Seattle High School.

Assumption of Risk

Defendant attempted to argue that Mac Clay had assumed the risk of the improperly run practice by turning out for wrestling. Washington law separates assumption of risk into four categories: express, primary implied, implied reasonable and implied unreasonable. The first two categories act as a complete bar to a claim while the second two categories are absolved into Washington’s comparative fault system.

"Express and implied primary assumption of risk arise where a plaintiff has consented to relieve the defendant of a duty to the plaintiff regarding specific known risks." In each of these affirmative defenses the burden is on the defendant to show that the plaintiff has relieved it of a duty of care. Express assumption of risk arises where a formal waiver or release has been entered into. In the high school setting express exculpatory agreements which relieve a school district of its duty of care have been found to violate public policy and are impermissible. The Court in Waganblast, however, left the door ajar for a school district to still attempt to bar a student athlete’s claim under the doctrine of primary implied assumption of risk.

In order to establish the defense of primary implied assumption of risk a defendant must establish evidence that the student athlete: (1) had a full subjective understanding, (2) of the presence and nature of the specific risk, and (3) voluntarily chose to encounter the risk. The defendant must establish that the student athlete was "aware of more than just the generalized risk of the activity" but that he knew and appreciated the "specific hazards which caused the injury." Importantly, merely participating in an activity or a sport does not in and of itself imply that a student has assumed the risk that results in their injury. To the extent a student athlete’s injuries resulted from risks created by the Defendant, the Defendant remains liable. A defendant cannot establish the defense of primary assumption of risk merely because the student athlete was injured while participating in a sport.

Washington case law is helpful in illustrating primary implied assumption of risk. In Kirk v. Washington State University, a college cheerleader (Kathleen) was injured while she was practicing under dangerous conditions and without adequate supervision. The university failed to provide an appropriate facility, coaching or instruction which resulted in her injuries. The university argued that Kathleen’s claims were barred under the doctrine of primary implied express assumption of risk because she had assumed the risks inherent in the activity of cheerleading. The Supreme Court rejected this argument and held that she did not assume the risks caused by the university’s negligent provision of dangerous facilities or improper supervision and coaching. The Court held that those were not risks "inherent" in the sport. Hence in the primary sense, she did not assume those risks and relieve the Defendant of those duties.

Similarly, in Scott v. Pacific West Mountain Resort, a twelve year old skier (Justin) was injured in a ski racing course. The resort moved for summary judgment on the basis of primary implied assumption of risk asserting that Justin had assumed the risks inherent in skiing. The Supreme Court reversed the trial court and held that Justin did not assume the risks that were created by the Defendant’s negligent conduct in negligently designing the racecourse and its actions which negligently enhanced the risk of injury. The Supreme Court held that that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk in the sports setting does not apply when those risks are created by the coaches or operators which unduly enhance those risks.

As with Justin and Kathlene in the above cases, Mac Clay did not assume the risks that resulted in his injury. He did not assume the risk of an improperly run practice, he did not assume the risk that the school and his coaches would fail to use available perimeter mats and have all wrestlers practice on a wrestling mat placed in the center of a cafeteria surrounded by a concrete floor, that his coaches would organize the practice in a manner that placed wrestlers too close together, that they would fail to enforce their own rules regarding staying in practice circles, would fail to supervise, would unduly increase the potential and risk for a collision to occur, and subject him to an unreasonable, enhanced and excessive risk of injury. Defendant Seattle School District brought a motion for summary judgment arguing that Mac Clay’s claims were barred by the doctrine of primary implied assumption of risk. The motion was heard by the Honorable John P. Erlick on January 30, 2009 and was denied. Mac was allowed to bring his case before a jury to obtain justice. At trial, the Defendant would potentially still be able to argue that Mac was comparatively at fault under the latter two categories of assumption of risk (implied reasonable and implied unreasonable) but these defenses are subsumed into the doctrine of comparative fault and his claim was not barred.

Coaching Testimony Supported Mac’s Claim

Testimony from numerous experts including Chris Horpel, a former All American wrestler from Stanford and Stanford University’s wrestling coach for 25 years, Dr. Garold Rushing a former All American wrestler from Arizona who now teaches sports risk management at Minnesota State University, and defense expert, former Olympic wrestler and Iowa Hawkeye Coach, Dan Gable, provided steps by which coaches organize practices and drills in a manner to minimize these incidents and avoid collisions between pairs of wrestlers. Testimony revealed that wrestlers should also be taught to take proactive steps to avoid collisions. Coach Gable explained this in his book on coaching wrestling when he noted:

A safety rule of thumb is always make the executor of the move the one responsible for making sure people don’t crash into others or the wall.  The executor should be the one with the vision field to help prevent dangerous events. 

In his paper, Coaching for Safety, wrestling safety expert, Richard Borkowski, similarly notes:

Coaches must allow a reasonable amount of space during team drills. A wrestler landing on other wrestlers during team drills can and should always be avoided.

What became exceedingly clear as the testimony and evidence developed in this case is that there were numerous steps that could and should have been taken by both the coach and the school district to prevent this injury. Video from the minutes immediately before the incident revealed that there were also numerous near misses that went unnoticed. As was noted by Dr. Gary Rushing, a predictable injury is a preventable injury. And the more predictable an injury is the more preventable it is. As discovery went on it became evident that this injury was not only predictable, but it was probable. Shortly before trial, after two years of litigation including over six dozen depositions the case resolved for just over $15 million.

Postscript

Mac is now in his sophomore year at Seattle University where he is studying chemistry and plans to go on to graduate school. He continues to be an avid athlete and is a member of the Seattle Slam, Seattle’s quad rugby team.