Coaches' Liability and Responsibilities to Athletes

Regardless of their certification level, experience, employment or volunteer status, sport discipline, or location, coaches have a legal obligation to provide a safe environment for their athletes at all times.

This obligation extends to ensuring that coaches have met the standard of care that is expected of them in the following areas:

  • Facilities and organization – Coaches have a duty to select premises and equipment that are reasonably safe and suitable for the intended purpose and to ensure that the event or activity is safely organized.
  • Instruction and supervision – Coaches have a duty to exercise reasonable care in the control and supervision of activities. This duty includes anticipating and warning against dangers, as well as preventing athletes from participating in unreasonably dangerous activities.
  • Medical care – Coaches have a duty to inquire about illness or injury and prohibit participation when necessary. In the event of a medical emergency, coaches have a duty to provide suitable first aid until professional assistance arrives.

If coaches do not provide a safe environment for participants, they risk being sued for negligence. This risk is understandably one of the biggest concerns raised by coaches, particularly in today’s litigious culture. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the law does not expect coaches to be perfect in their behaviour, but rather to be reasonable, and to act as any other reasonable coach would act in similar circumstances.

A coach’s conduct would only be deemed to be negligent when it can be proven that a duty of care exists, that the duty imposes a standard of care that is not met by the coach, that harm or loss occurs as a result, and that the coach’s failure to meet the standard caused, or substantially contributed to, the harm or loss.

Coaches must have a clear understanding of the standard of care owed to athletes. This understanding can be challenging, however, as the standard of care varies with the type of activity, number and age of participants, location of the program, skill level, weather conditions, and other factors.

Coaches need to look to four sources to determine which standard is owed in any given circumstance:

  • Written/published standards – Equipment standards, organizational policies and rules, facility rules, codes of conduct, and other information contained in published coaching/teaching/leadership manuals
  • Unwritten/unpublished standards – Any known and accepted developments and trends in sport
  • Case law – Court decisions dealing with similar fact situations
  • Common sense – Factors such as the coach’s own intuition, knowledge, experience, and instincts

Reasonable and prudent coaches should be familiar with the written policies that govern their conduct, the unwritten norms, and the relevant case law as it applies to coaches, and they should trust their intuitive judgment. They should also be aware of the standard of care expected of them and meet or exceed this standard by anticipating risks and taking steps to manage risks in all coaching activities.

Katherine Fast[1], a Canadian lawyer and author of Sport Liability Law: A Guide for Amateur Sports Organizations and Their Insurers, suggested that with respect to instruction, supervision, and the provision of medical care, coaches must do the following in order to protect themselves from liability:

  • Provide competent and informed instructions to participants for how to perform the activity
  • Assign drills and exercises that are suitable for the age, ability, fitness level, or stage of advancement of the participants
  • Progressively train and prepare the participants for the activity according to an acceptable standard of practice
  • Clearly explain to participants the risks involved in the activity
  • Group participants according to size, weight, skill, or fitness to avoid potentially harmful mismatching
  • Inquire about illness or injury and prohibit participation when necessary
  • In the event of a medical emergency, provide suitable first aid
  • Where possible, keep written records of attendance, screening, training, and teaching methods in order to provide evidence of competent coaching

Coaches should be encouraged to develop their own personal risk management plan, which will help provide a safe environment as well as protect them from liability – or reduce the chances of getting sued - when injury cannot be prevented.

What Sport Organizations Can Do

Risk management is also crucial for sport organizations, which also need to properly manage and assess risk in order to avoid liability.

Fast, in Sport Liability Law: A Guide for Amateur Sports Organizations and Their Insurers, listed recommendations that sport organizations should consider in order to reduce the risk of injuries to participants, defend themselves against lawsuits, reduce insurance costs, and protect their coaches, officials, and volunteers. These recommendations included:

  • Design a system that results in sport facilities and equipment being regularly and thoroughly inspected
  • Follow a policy that imposes minimum standards and qualifications on instructors, coaches, and other staff
  • Obtain adequate insurance
  • Develop a general safety plan to deal with foreseeable situations that could be dangerous or lead to liability
  • Display easy-to-read signs or images to inform and warn participants and spectators of the risks associated with the activity
  • Prepare and properly administer carefully drafted waivers and informed consent agreements
  • Keep a written record of safety systems and specific steps taken to avoid injury and loss
  • Inform coaches, staff, volunteers, and administrators of various ways by which liability can be incurred and train them never to admit liability or fault

Though these tasks may seem daunting, it bears repeating that the law does not expect perfection, only reasonableness. As long as coaches can demonstrate that they acted reasonably in any given situation, the likelihood of being found negligent is significantly reduced.

Still, having adequate insurance remains critical for sport organizations and coaches alike, particularly volunteer coaches. Coaches should not assume they are covered by their sport organization - they must be sure to enquire about insurance to make sure they are covered.

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[1] Sport Liability Law: A guide for Amateur Sports Organizations and Their Insurers. By: Katherine S. Fast, Dolden Wallace Folick LLP Insurance Lawyers, January 2004

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An edited version of this article was originally published in: Coaches Plan du Coach (Winter 2015) Vol.3(1)

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