What is the Standard of Care of Coaches Towards Athletes?

Or for that matter, what is the standard of care of teachers to students, or instructors to participants? A recent court case of British Columbia involving a junior high school teacher and a student in a physical education class provides a good reminder of this standard (Hussack v. School District No. 33 (Chilliwack) [1].

The standard of care owed in a given set of circumstances is determined by four factors: written standards (such as laws, policies, rules, regulations); unwritten standards (such as common industry practices); case law (previous court decisions); and good old common sense. In sport, a duty of care always exists between a coach and an athlete, and between a teacher and a student. In such situations, someone is usually conveying knowledge or imparting a skill. Some leading cases from sport have shed light on the standard of care expected of those who are in such instructional situations, including this new case from BC.

A 30-year old Supreme Court of Canada case, Thornton et. al. v. Board of School Trustees of School District No. 57 (Prince George) [2], sets the tone for this discussion. The court concluded that it was not negligent for a teacher to allow children to do difficult manoeuvres in gymnastics provided that:

  1. The skill was suitable to the age and physical and mental condition of the child
  2. The child was progressively trained and coached to do the skill properly
  3. The equipment was adequately and suitably arranged and
  4. The activity, having regard to its inherently dangerous nature, was properly supervised

A few years later, a similar case arose involving the same sport in another school. In Myers v. Peel County Board of Education [3], a 15-year old student became paralyzed when he fell while executing a difficult dismount from the rings apparatus. In this case, the teacher was supervising a double gym class and allowed Myers, and some classmates, to go into an adjoining room to practice while spotting each other. As Myers’ spotter turned away, Myers tried the dismount and fell. This case reaffirmed the four principles of Thornton, and found that the teacher was negligent for failing to meet the standard of care of “careful and prudent parent”.

Around the same time, another case arose, this time involving an instructor and an adult participant. In Smith v. Horizon Aero Sports Ltd. [4], Smith was an adult taking a learn-to-parachute course. After completing the course she did her first jump, but forgot what she had learned about steering her chute and ended up landing in a tree and injuring herself severely. In this case the court inquired as to what steps the instructor took to test (either formally or informally) the student’s understanding and whether the instructor adequately considered the effects of stress on a student’s ability to learn, retain and repeat a skill. The court found the instruction wanting in these areas and assessed 70 percent liability to the defendant instructor and school. Smith herself was held 30 percent liable for failing to clarify any misunderstandings about steering, for failing to give indications she was under extreme stress, and for ultimately sharing in the decision that she should jump from the plane.

Fast-forward 20 years to the University of Windsor. The case of Lam v. University of Windsor [5] involved a participant in a judo class being injured after being thrown to the mats by another participant. The case details are interesting: Lam was a somewhat experienced judoku and participated in an introductory class put on by the student-run judo club, running from 9 PM to 11 PM on the university campus. The ‘sensei’, or instructor of the class, ‘bowed-out’ the class at 10:30 PM, then left. Several participants remained and continued to practice among themselves, including Lam, who asked another participant to spar with him. This participant was a beginner who outweighed Lam by about 40 pounds. In the process of sparring, Lam was knocked to the ground and was rendered a quadriplegic.

Mediation prior to trial determined the amount of the settlement in this case ($2.75 million). A trial was held to determine how this settlement should be divided among a number of defendants (sensei, the judo club, the University, the other participant). The settlement was driven by a clear acknowledgement that the instructor in this case, by leaving the class unattended, had failed to provide adequate supervision.

And now, to the Hussack case from BC. Devon Hussack was a Grade 7 student who was chronically absent from school. He missed all of the first two weeks of the field hockey unit in his physical education class. When he did finally return to school, the instructor considered that because Devon was an experienced ice hockey player, he would be able to catch on quickly. He admitted Devon into the class scrimmage, and before starting the scrimmage reminded all the students of the class not to ‘stick check’ from behind. In other words, a player on defense should not come up behind a player winding up to take a shot, because the defensive players runs the risk of getting hit by the other player’s stick.

During the game, Devon approached another player who was taking a shot and this is exactly what happened: he got hit in the face. The injury was serious and ultimately led to a more serious ‘somatoform’ disorder, which is a mental condition that manifests itself in physical problems. Referring to previous cases (Thornton, Myers and Smith) the court concluded that Devon was inadequately prepared for field hockey and was not properly instructed in the sport’s safety requirements. Having not been prepared progressively, he should not have participated in the scrimmage.

My apologies for this long list of legal cases, but the verdict is pretty clear. We know that teachers owe to their students a standard of care equivalent to a careful and prudent parent: they are in loco parentis (in the place of a parent) as we say in legal language. Coaches are not held to the precise same standard but pretty close: they owe a duty towards athletes that imposes significant responsibilities. All of these cases contribute to our understanding of the standard of care of coaches, and tell us clearly that coaches must:

  1. Undertake activities that are suitable for the athletes in question
  2. Provide proper supervision for the entire duration of the activity
  3. Use appropriate equipment and in the proper fashion, and
  4. Provide progressive instruction

What does this mean in everyday terms?

  • The activity must be appropriate for the age, physical and mental condition and skill level of the athletes. Advanced gymnastics is likely not suitable for an average Grade 5 gym class, for example.
  • Coaches must provide diligent supervision and must not leave athletes unattended at any time, particularly minor athletes. No stepping out to take a cell call, or leaving the gymnasium to use the washroom, unless some alternate supervision is in place. This also means at the end of a practice or game, if a parent does not collect an athlete as planned, then the coach must stay with that athlete until the parent arrives or other arrangements are made.
  • Progressive instruction means that athletes must be taught skills in a graduated manner through verbal instruction and demonstration, they should be tested (even if informally) on what they have learned, and they should not move on to higher skills until they have shown proficiency in lesser skills.

Also, if a coach is traveling with a team, there are no separate chaperones, and the athletes are minors, then the coach is on supervision duty at all times, around the clock.

In conclusion, never underestimate the important role of the coach. Every volunteer coach is to be applauded for what they do, and for the positive psychological and social influences they have on young people. It is also important that coaches recognize their significant legal responsibilities.

-----------------------

[1] [2009] BCSC 852
[2] [1978] 1 WWR 607, [1978] 2 SCR 267
[3] [1981] 2 SCR 21
[4] [1981], 19 CCLT 89, 130 DLR (3d) 91 (BCSC)
[5] Unreported decision, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, March 9, 2001

Originally published: Imagine Canada - Risk Management Expert Column (November 2009)

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