The Standard of Care of Coaches Towards Athletes

This column is about the basics. It talks about the standard of care of coaches towards athletes. When coaches fail to meet this standard, they may be negligent, and when coaches are negligent, they may also be liable. An awareness of this standard, which the law imposes on coaches, is a powerful tool in minimizing your legal risks.

Negligence and liability are legal terms with precise meanings in law. Negligence refers to conduct, while liability refers to responsibility for negligent conduct. Legally, a coach's behaviour is negligent only when all four of the following elements are present:

  1. There exists a duty of care towards the athlete.
  2. This duty imposes a standard of care, and, this standard is breached.
  3. Harm or loss is suffered by the athlete.
  4. The breach of the duty of care causes, or substantially contributes to, the athlete's harm or loss.

Points 1 and 3 are fairly straightforward so we'll touch on points 2 and 4 - the standard of care and proximate cause.

Briefly, a duty of care arises by virtue of a "relationship" between parties, and the coach-athlete relationship is clearly one that establishes a duty of care. As well, the harm or loss must be significant, as trifling injures are rarely the basis for negligence.

The standard of care is an objective standard of conduct. The concept of negligence is founded on the notion of "reasonableness." As adults, we are all credited with the same general intelligence and sensibility, and thus the law expects each of us to behave in a reasonable fashion when confronted with similar circumstances.

This objective standard also applies to adults with special knowledge or skills, such as coaches. A coach is expected to possess the same general intelligence and sensibility as other reasonable coaches who have similar training and experience. The law does not expect a coach to be perfect in his or her behaviour, only to be reasonable and to act as other reasonable coaches would act in similar circumstances.

Given that the standard of care depends on what a coach ought to do, how do we know what this standard is? There is no black-and-white answer, as the standard will vary depending on the circumstances. Nonetheless, there are some places to look for guidance. They include written and unwritten standards, case law, and common sense which, taken together, indicate the standard of care the coach must meet.

Written standards include government statutes and regulations, equipment standards, rules or guidelines for a particular sport or facility, and an organization' s internal policies and procedures. Written standards for the coach might include a sport's rules and technical regulations, a facility's safety and emergency procedures, tournament or event guidelines relating to sport medicine or first aid, coaching manuals and journals, coaching codes of ethics, and the coach's job description. Written standards promote prudent behaviour by telling coaches how to behave before an accident happens. Disregarding written standards is strong evidence of negligent behaviour.

Unwritten standards refer to conventional practices. The common practices of other members of a profession are a reliable indicator of appropriate and reasonable behaviour, and failure to perform is often an indication of a lack of care. This is why coaches should remain current with new developments in their field by networking and pursuing opportunities for professional development.

Case law refers to previous court decisions about similar fact situations. Much of the Canadian law of negligence is based on the principles of common law, which have evolved over hundreds of years of judicial decision-making. Case law guides not only lawyers and judges, but also provides important information to coaches, instructors and sport administrators.

Finally, the standard of care is influenced by common sense. Intuition is a reflection of knowledge and experience, and trusting one's intuition is often the best rule of thumb when something doesn't seem safe or right.

These four sources of information about the standard of care can be illustrated by looking at a recent case (Hamstra et al. v. British Columbia Rugby Union [1989] 1 C.C.L.T. (2d) 78). Mark Hamstra was a junior rugby player trying out for the B.C. provincial team. In a regional selection match, he suffered a serious injury resulting in quadriplegia when the scrum in which he was playing the position of hooker collapsed. He sued, among others, the coach, alleging that the scrum collapsed as a result of a coaching error in mismatching the athletes playing the prop positions alongside him.

More particularly, Hamstra argued that the athletes placed beside him were neither skilled nor fit enough to play the prop position competently, and that the coach ought to have known the risk of a collapsed scrum leading to the very type of injury Hamstra suffered. Furthermore, such knowledge carried with it a very high degree of care. In making this argument, Hamstra referred to a written memorandum from the English Rugby Football Union and experimental variations to the junior game, designed for safety, which were taking place in New Zealand.

The Court stated that the test for negligence is "whether [the coach] acted in accordance with the ordinary skill and care of a selector/coach in the circumstances in which he found himself." The Court held that the coach had shown the ordinary skill and care to be expected in fulfilling his functions since he acted in accordance with the Rules of the Game, safety regulations, and accompanying guidelines promoted by the sport's governing body in Canada. These were written standards available to the coach at the time of the incident. The Court was satisfied that he was not, nor should he necessarily have been aware of information from England and New Zealand pertaining to the risk of spinal injury from collapsed scrums.

In terms of unwritten standards, it was shown that the coach had properly taught all his players, including Hamstra, to keep their heads up in a collapsing scrum. This was a common coaching technique supported by a junior rugby rule which allowed a penalty to be assessed against any player who "has or causes an opponent to have his shoulders lower than his hip joint" while in a scrum.

This case also shows how case law has a strong bearing on the evolving standard of care of the coach. The Court stated " ... the standard of care as it relates to the risk of serious debilitating cervical spine injury in British Columbia in May 1986 is, in my opinion, a lower one than the Court would apply in British Columbia were the same injury to occur today in similar circumstances.” The evidence which came to light in this trial increased the rugby community’s awareness of the risk of spinal injury from collapsed scrums, and this increased the standard of care of those who organize and coach rugby programs.

The Court also dealt extensively with the issue of causation. There was much evidence in the eight-week trial relating to the "mismatching" of props, which Hamstra argued caused his injury. The props supporting Hamstra were lighter and less experienced than the props on the other team. The Court heard expert evidence from an elite coach that "skill” in a scrum depended upon technique, strength, and weight, in that order. The Court also heard evidence that, despite differences in weight and experience, neither side had clearly dominated the scrum throughout the match. From this the Court inferred that there was, in fact, no mismatch. The Court concluded that the sole cause of Hamstra's injury was Hamstra losing his balance after hooking the ball and falling head-first onto the ground.

Originally published: Coaches Report (1995) Vol. 2(1)

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