Late last fall, sixteen year old Damon W. James staggered to the sidelines and collapsed during a Westfield/Brocton high school football game. Three days later, Damon died at Women & Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, New York. It was initially reported that Damon suffered from a traumatic head injury caused by a helmet-to-helmet collision. However, it is now believed that several football-related head injuries incurred earlier in the season made Damon particularly susceptible to the fatal blow.
Damon’s mother and father have filed a notice of claim with the Westfield School District, asserting that the school failed to monitor Damon “between games when it was apparent he had suffered an injury.” The notice also asserts that the school should have evaluated Damon at the beginning of the football season in order to get a baseline of his brain health and function. Further, the notice accuses Westfield of both failing to provide Damon with a proper-fitting helmet, and failing to maintain football helmets in manner which was required to “optimize player safety.” A notice of claim is typically required to put a municipality on notice of a potential lawsuit and preserve a plaintiff’s claim from statutory limitations on such actions.
Currently, New York does not require schools to conduct baseline mental health tests for student athletes. Schools are required to pull students from a sporting event immediately after they have suffered a concussion, however. Students pulled from a game for this reason may only be returned to play after remaining symptom-free for at least 24 hours.
The Buffalo News obtained the notice of claim from the Westfield School District by filing a request through New York’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL. However, the school refused to provide the News with videotapes of the football games in question, tapes that were requested through the same FOIL process. When contacted about the issue, Westfield School Superintendent David J. Davison refused to comment.
Apparently, the school is attempting to use the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA (a federal law designed to protect a student’s academic records), to block the family’s request for the game videos. Frank D. LaMonte, an attorney who works to raise awareness of potential abuses of FERPA, called the high school’s attempt to hide behind the law “ridiculous.” Lamonte noted, “FERPA protects things that are private . . . . What you look like playing football in front of a thousand people is not confidential. Committing something non-confidential to film does not magically transform it into a secret. The school should be embarrassed to be using FERPA in that way.”
One thing is clear – whatever details the tapes reveal will almost certainly be relevant to the school’s potential liability in the upcoming lawsuit brought by James’ family.