December 24, 2003

Are Universities Liable for Players or Coaches?

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Paul G. Lannon

It is the second half of a hard-fought basketball game on your home court. A missed shot puts the ball up for grabs. A scuffle ensues: some elbowing, some shoving, and then things really get out of hand. One of your players punches a visiting player, breaking his nose. The injured player claims your coach is also to blame because he kept yelling for more aggressive play and praising players who committed fouls. Can the university be held vicariously liable for the actions of its player and coach? What about liability for negligence? What if the university was paying a scholarship to the player who threw the punch?

The answer to each question is “no,” according to a recent opinion by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Kavanaugh v. Boston University, 440 Mass. 195 (2003). The injured player, Kavanaugh, argued in court that a scholarship athlete is an agent of the university and therefore the university should be held liable for the acts of its agent under a legal doctrine that typically applies only in the employment context. Rejecting that argument, the court affirmed the traditional rule that schools are not liable for the acts of their students. The court also declined to treat scholarship students any differently, noting that “scholarships are not wages,” and scholarship students do not “work for” the school in exchange for their scholarships.

Kavanaugh argued next that the university should be liable for negligence. As a general rule, however, the court noted that “there is no duty to protect another from the criminal conduct of a third party.” This rule protects schools and universities, and while in exceptional circumstances a heightened duty can be imposed, the court found no such “special relationship” between a university and an opposing player.

Nor was the punch thrown in this case reasonably foreseeable. “[F]orseeability must mean something more,” reasoned the court, “than awareness of the ever present possibility that an athlete may become overly excited and engage in physical contact beyond the precise boundaries of acceptably aggressive play.” In this case, there was no specific information about the university player’s propensity toward violence, no history or warning.

Finally, the court refused to impose liability for the actions of the coach. Recognizing that competitive sports regularly involve physical conduct and aggressive behavior, the court ruled that coaches, like players themselves, should not be held liable for negligent acts during competition. Liability will be imposed only for reckless or intentional misconduct. Aggressive coaching alone, without express instructions to harm an opposing player, will not lead to liability. Nor will fouls alone lead to liability. The “policing of fouls is up to the referees, and the mere fact that a player has committed a foul, or even multiple fouls, does not preclude a coach from encouraging that player to play aggressively.”

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