Football Coach Immune from Brain Injury Suit, Yet Ruling May Give Hope to Future Players

Sheldon Mann, a high school football player who suffered a traumatic brain injury after a concussion during practice, will not be able to sue his coach or the school district. The Third Circuit affirmed Coach Christopher Walkowiak’s grant of immunity from a lawsuit that Mann’s parents filed in 2014. The appeals judge noted there was considerable dispute around what happened, and whether the coach knew Mann was injured when he allowed him to keep practicing. The head football coach of Palmerton Area School District claimed he did not see Mann get hit, and only noticed Mann rolling his shoulder, to which Mann replied “I’m fine.”

However, Mann’s teammates were surprised the coach allowed Mann to continue to play after he took an “exceptionally hard shot to the upper body.” They believed he was suffering from a concussion and it “looked as though he was dizzy and was stumbling around the field.” Mann was a 17-year-old senior at the time, and is now 24. Soon after he continued to play, Mann then took another massive hit and was then removed from practice. Mann now suffers from an array of problems such as slowed motor activity, auditory hallucinations, seizures, memory issues, pain, nausea, difficulty in following conversation, and hypersensitivity to light, sounds, and smells. Mann’s parents contended that Walkowiak violated their son’s constitutional right to bodily integrity under the Fourteenth Amendment’s state-created danger theory of liability and under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Monell. They also alleged the school district did not adequately train their coaches on concussion recognition and protection.

The three judge panel found that there was evidence to suggest that Coach Walkowiak was culpable under the state-created danger theory. Despite that, no legal precedent had been in place back in November 2011 to hold the coach or the school liable when Mann suffered his injury, thus the coach had immunity. “In November of 2011, it was not so plainly obvious that that requiring a student-athlete, fully clothed in protective gear, to continue to participate in practice after sustaining a violent hit and exhibiting concussion symptoms implicated the student athlete’s constitutional rights,” the ruling said. “Given the state of the law in 2011, it cannot be said that Walkowiak was ‘plainly incompetent’ in sending Sheldon in to continue to practice….Nor is there any basis for concluding that he knowingly violated Sheldon’s constitutional rights.”

Although too late for Mann, the panel now ruled “[w]e hold that an injured student-athlete participating in a contact sport has a constitutional right to be protected from further harm, and that a state actor violates this right when the injured student-athlete is required to be exposed to a risk of harm by continuing to practice or compete.” For future similar brain injury suits, this case could now be important precedent.

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