Liability of Coaches for Injury or Death of Players

Yesterday, a well-known Kentucky high school football coach was charged with reckless homicide in the heat-related death of one of his players. The player, 15-year-old Max Gilpin, collapsed during an August practice, and died three days later. According to the allegations, Gilpin’s body temperature reached 107 degrees and witnesses said that coach Jason Stinson denied the boy water.

Interestingly, the day after Stinson was charged with a crime, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided Davis v. Carter, a case eerily similar to Stinson’s. In Davis, the parents of a high school football player brought suit against three coaches for violation of the player’s constitutional rights, as well as causes of action in tort (presumably wrongful death). The player died after the coaches allegedly ignored signs of dehydration, and for denying the player water during a practice.

The coaches contended that they were entitled to qualified immunity, and that their conduct did not rise to the level of a violation of constitutional rights. Ultimately, court agreed.

In it’s ruling, the 11th Circuit held:

In this school setting case, the complaint’s allegations of deliberate indifference, without more, do not rise to the conscience-shocking level required for a constitutional violation. While the circumstances of this case are truly unfortunate, Plaintiffs’ claims are properly confined to the realm of torts.

This case may bode well for Stinson in his Kentucky case. While not directly on point, the Davis case states that since the student voluntarily participated in the activity, the coach didn’t engage in corporal punishment or physically contact the student, the conduct does not rise to the level of a willful or malicious intent to cause harm that would be need for a constitutional violation.

While the ruling relieved the coaches of constitutional claims, it did not relieve them of tort claims, such as negligence and wrongful death. In California, it has long been held that coaches and schools can be held liable for injuries to students if the coaches or schools created conditions likely to cause harm.

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