Injured Field Hockey Player Blocked From Suing School

A former high school field hockey player who sued her school district after suffering a head injury at a practice in 2012 had her case dismissed by a Massachusetts appeals court on Friday, May 18, 2018. The appeals court in Middlesex County, Massachusetts affirmed an order of dismissal made by the trial court pursuant to a sovereign immunity clause in the state’s Tort Claims Act.

After being struck with a field hockey stick by a teammate, Alexandra Stahr suffered a concussion and the loss of two teeth. The injury was allegedly a result of a lack of instruction and supervision from the head coach and a volunteer assistant coach of the field hockey team. It was further alleged that the coaches failed to properly treat the injury or explain the extent of the injury to Stahr’s father. As a result, Stahr received only emergency dental surgery but no other emergency medical treatment despite her concussion.

A suit was filed against Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School after Stahr was diagnosed with a concussion five days following the incident. The concussion allegedly caused Stahr’s academic performance to suffer over a long period of time while the school failed to provide her with academic assistance or a reentry plan. Stahr ultimately withdrew from the high school, transferred, and filed the suit alleging that the school was negligent in its failure to prevent her injuries and its failure to properly address the effects of her injuries.

In dismissing the plaintiff’s claims, the trial court cited the doctrine of sovereign immunity for public entities and relied on precedent barring  “any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer.” Therefore, unless the school district, by some affirmative act, “originally caused” the basis for the tort claim, the claim is barred by sovereign immunity principles codified in the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act.

The appeals court affirmed the dismissal, noting that the acts of the high school were “plainly omissions” as opposed to affirmative acts originally causing the injury.  The court held that the coach’s failure to explain the injury to Stahr’s father and the school’s failure to implement the proper concussion protocol were not sufficient acts or causes of the harm to sustain a claim in light of the sovereign immunity doctrine preventing liability on behalf of public employers.

The court added that the scope of a particular statutory remedy reflects a policy judgment and, “if it is unwise, it is not for us to say so; the remedy lies with the legislature.” The topic of sovereign immunity was raised in the May 16, 2018 post about the settlement Michigan State agreed to pay victims of Larry Nassar’s abuse. In light of the settlement, the victims said they were not done pursuing reform regarding claims of sexual misconduct and that they will seek legislative action to eliminate sovereign immunity in that context.

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