Coaches' Duty of Care Revisited

Published January 4, 2010

Previously in this column we have written about the duty of care of coaches towards athletes. A new case from British Columbia (Hussack v. School District No. 33 (Chilliwack)) involving a physical education teacher sends a strong message, and we think it is worth providing an update on the duty of care coaches owe to their athletes.

How much does a coach or a physical education teacher have to do in order to satisfy the legal standard of care? The courts have stated that a coach must take all reasonable steps to prevent injury to athletes, including ensuring participants are prepared for all aspects of the activity by means of progressive instruction. However, contributory negligence and assumption of risk have also played a large role when determining liability. This article will help to further the coaches’ understanding of this area of the law.

In order to accurately understand the current standard, one must first understand what duty of care is and when that duty has been breached.  To claim negligence against a coach or teacher, a claimant must establish the following:

  1. Does the coach owe the athlete a duty of care?  When you are in a position of trust, care or power, a duty of care will almost always be placed upon you.  Therefore, a coach will have a duty of care to their athletes.
  2. Has the coach breached the duty of care?  The answer to this is not clear-cut and as new cases occur the standard evolves.  A coach must provide reasonable care to their athletes, matching what would be expected from a reasonable, confident and careful coach acting in similar circumstances. While the concept of standard of care is always the same, the specific actions or behaviours to fulfill that standard will vary with the circumstances depending on the setting, the nature of the activity, age of the participants, their skill level, and other factors.
  3. Was the injury sustained due to the negligence of the coach?  When a judge looks at such cases he must find a reasonable degree of proximity between the coach’s breach of the reasonable standard and the damage suffered.

Smith v. Horizon Aero Sports Ltd. was a 1981 British Columbia decision brought by a woman who suffered injuries sustained from skydiving.  The judge ruled that the instructor had misjudged the woman’s readiness to jump on her own. He was an expert instructor and she was a novice student, and he should have known that the student was not ready.  The instructors’ misjudgment of her knowledge retention and thus her readiness to jump breached the standard of care that a novice learner should have expected in that specific situation.  Smith was herself 30 percent liable for failing to clarify misunderstandings about what she was learning, for failing to give indications that she was under severe stress, and for ultimately sharing in the decision that she should jump from the aircraft.

Myers v. Peel County Board of Education was another early 1980s case where the plaintiff, a 15-year old boy, broke his neck dismounting from the gymnastics rings. In this case the teacher was supervising a double gym class (due to another teacher’s absence) and he had allowed Myers and some other students to practice in an adjoining room.  In order to satisfy the legal standard of care to a student, the judge ruled that a physical education teacher must provide adequate supervision and protection, in keeping with that of a careful and prudent parent. In this case, the plaintiff was partially liable also, for having attempted a difficult dismount without the benefit of a spotter and in the absence of supervision.

The 2009 Hussack case from British Columbia adds new elements to the analysis of the standard of care in the coach-athlete relationship.  Hussack, a 7th grader, suffered serious injuries while playing field hockey when a classmate’s back-swinging stick struck him in the face.  Hussack was an overprotected child and had a history of chronic absences from school. In a meeting with Hussack’s father, the principal suggested that if Hussack participated in the remaining part of the field hockey unit, he could get a passing grade in the course.

Hussack joined the class, although he had not attended any of the previous classes in the unit, where Mr. MacPhee, the physical education teacher, had taught the students the rules of the game and allowed them to progress to eventual game action.  Although Hussack had played ice hockey for many years, he had never participated in field hockey and due to his absence he had not received proper instructions for the game. MacPhee still encouraged Hussack to play regardless of his lack of experience.

At issue in this case was whether the physical education teacher breached his duty of care to Hussack.  Thornton v. Board of School Trustees of School District No. 57 (Prince George) stated that the standard of care to be exercised by school authorities is that of a careful or prudent parent. Did the coach breach that duty to Hussack?  Four major criteria are considered as part of the test, as set out in Thornton, namely: (a) whether the activity was suitable for the age, mental and physical condition of the student; (b) whether the student was progressively trained and coached to do the activity properly in order to avoid the danger; (c) whether the equipment was adequate and suitably arranged; and (d) whether the performance, with regards to its inherently dangerous nature, was properly supervised.

The plaintiff argued that MacPhee failed to teach the game of field hockey to Hussack in a progressive manner, and that Hussack’s lack of knowledge resulted in injury.  MacPhee was well aware of Hussack’s absence from school and should have known that Hussack was not ready to scrimmage in field hockey.  Instead, MacPhee assumed Hussack was prepared for game action, notwithstanding that he missed all the instruction given to the other students. Had Hussack attended any of the previous classes in the field hockey unit, he would have known that it was dangerous to come in close behind a player preparing to take a shot on net, because there is a risk of being hit by the player’s stick.

The defense relied on Hussack’s ice hockey experience to counter the argument that he was not prepared to play field hockey.  However, an expert witness, field hockey coach Gail Wilson, stated the opposite in her testimony. She said that to play field hockey safely, ice hockey players have to “unlearn” many of their habits.  In Wilson’s opinion, simply telling someone the difference between ice hockey and field hockey is not sufficient, rather one must be taught, in a progressive manner, the rules and ways to play field hockey.  Hussack had only been made aware of the rules, through verbal communication, moments before his participation in the scrimmage.

The plaintiff succeeded in this case because MacPhee had, in fact, breached the duty of care owed to him.  When students are playing sports in physical education class it is not sufficient for the teacher to supervise and protect, the teacher must also progressively teach the students the skills to play the game.

It is important to note that every negligence case is different and will be decided based on individual facts.  However, the Hussack case establishes that if coaches want athletes to participate safely, they must be fully prepared for the sport.  When coaches don’t properly and progressively train their athletes for game action, they are putting those athletes in an unsafe situation and are also putting themselves at legal risk.

Originally published: Coaches Report (2010) Vol. 16(4)

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