This case discussion, provided by Dr. Leonard K. Lucenko – a sports and recreational facilities safety expert, clearly illustrates the crucial role of the expert witness in negligence cases. He has a PhD and is an experienced expert witness having consulted for more than 20 years for defendants and plaintiffs in over 300 cases in education, sport, recreation and camp management.Dr. Lucenko’s web site is: www.leonardlucenko.com.
On October 6, 1999, the plaintiff, a 17-year old junior at his local high school, was a member of the varsity football team. He had played football since his freshman year. On this date, the plaintiff was participating in football practice after school. The practice session was being held on the varsity practice field. The practice field, which was the field for some freshman interscholastic football games, was one of three fields used for football at the high school. This field was also used for the baseball outfield during the baseball season.
Two fences were located on the field: One fence was located around the perimeter of the field; the second fence was erected on the east side of the field. This fence was 24 feet high and 360 feet long and had been installed ten years earlier to prevent baseballs from landing in the neighboring yards. Steel posts were used to support the fence. According to the case documents, the fence and steel posts were located eleven and one half (11½) feet from the sideline of the football field. This distance did not comply with industry standards and practices.
Toward the end of practice on the day of the incident, the coaches had the offense run plays that were being used by the opposing team. The plaintiff was the tailback and was handed the ball on a running play. He made a cut at the line of scrimmage, a second cut several yards from the line of scrimmage and then began sprinting sprint down the east side of the field at full speed. A safety pursued the plaintiff at an angle at full speed and hit him at about the 40-45 yard line. The contact knocked the plaintiff off balance and his momentum carried him to the fence, where his head violently struck the unpadded steel pole.
The plaintiff was knocked unconscious, became unresponsive and stopped breathing. He was transported to the emergency room of the local hospital where he was diagnosed with a catastrophic spinal cord injury. He was transported via helicopter to a medical facility that was better able to treat his injuries. He was hospitalized for approximately three weeks and after his discharge was admitted to a rehabilitation facility. The plaintiff was rendered a quadriplegic after his injury.
Inspection and Discovery:
In October 2003, I traveled to the subject football field and conducted an inspection of the accident site. By that time, the subject fence had been removed. However, I was still able to observe the location of the fence and its dangerous and defective location near the sideline. Additionally, I reviewed photographs provided by the plaintiff’s attorney clearly showing the close proximity of the subject fence to the sideline and the lack of padding on the metal posts.
In February 2004, I submitted a preliminary expert report expressing my opinion that there was a gross deviation from reasonable and prudent standards of care and practice by defendant board of education, high school administration and football coaching staff. In my report, I referred to the industry standards and practices to show that the distance between the sideline and subject fence, or the buffer zone, did not meet these standards and that the metal posts should have been padded.
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) states the following in its publication, Natural and Artificial Playing Fields: Characteristics and Safety Features on pages 8-9: Football Fields – Sidelines
1. The sidelines should have no permanent markers or pylons which could cause tripping or falling and should be of a flexible material that cannot cause penetration.
2. The sidelines should have officials’ tables no closer than6.1 m (20 feet).
3. The sidelines should have players benches no closer than 6.1 m (20 feet).
4. The sidelines should have equipment, refreshment, and emergency equipment no closer than 9.1 m (30 feet)…
The above standards, which are applicable to all football fields, clearly indicate that there should have been at least 20 to 30 feet between the sideline and the fence. and obstructions such as the players’ benches and officials tables. In addition, the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations (National Federation), the governing body for interscholastic athletics provides that there should be a minimum buffer zone of five (5) yards or 15 feet between the sideline and any obstruction in its Court and Field Diagram Guide. The 11½ feet between the sideline and subject fence did not comply with the above standards.
In addition, I also referred to industry standards and practices regarding padding of dangerous obstructions. The National Federation states the following in its Court and Field Diagram Guide regarding the padding of goal posts:
f. The goal posts shall be padded with resilient, shock absorbing material to a height of at least 6 feet above the ground.
In my professional opinion, this standard was applicable to the present case in that the metal posts along the fence posed the same dangers as an unpadded goal post and therefore needed to be padded.
Thereafter, I was deposed twice by defense counsel. I testified that the defendants failed to recognize and detect the dangerous condition posed by subject fence. They failed to establish and implement appropriate inspection and maintenance procedures for the subject field. They failed to make certain that the metal posts were padded. They failed to warn the student athletes of the dangers posed by the metal posts. In fact, the testimonial evidence indicates that neither the administration nor the coaching staff had any clue that a catastrophic accident such as this could happen. These willful and reckless actions created the dangerous and defective condition that led to the plaintiff’s catastrophic injuries.
The case settled in 2005 for over $12 million dollars, to be paid over the life of the plaintiff. It was estimated that the final payout, including interest, could come to more than $47 million.
I was able to demonstrate in my report and during deposition testimony that the defendants failed to discharge their legal responsibility and duty to provide for the safety and health of the student athletes entrusted to their care and that this failure was a gross deviation from well-known education and coaching practices as well facility safety standards. As a result, the plaintiff sustained catastrophic and life-altering injuries that left him a quadriplegic.