PA Supreme Court determines colleges owe a duty to provide medical care to student-athletes and releases are valid for stopping claims by student athletes.

Court also sets forth requirements for a release to be valid under Pennsylvania law.

Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 215 A.3d 3, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiffs: , Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch

Defendant: Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, AD Mecca, Coach Duda, Coach Reiss, Coach Lamagna and Coyne and Bonisese

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, including negligence per se. The complaint also sought punitive damages, alleging appellants acted “willfully, wantonly and/or recklessly

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff’s

Year: 2017

Summary

In this decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviews requirements for how a release must be written in Pennsylvania law to be valid. Pennsylvania has no definition of gross negligence, but a release is still not valid to stop a gross negligence claim.

Finally, if you create a duty or make a promise that people rely on to their detriment or injury you are liable. Here a college is liable to its student-athletes who were injured during practice for not having certified athlete trainers on the field.

Facts

Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program.1 However, both athletic trainers resigned in the summer of 2009 and AD Mecca advertised two job openings for the position of athletic trainer. AD Mecca received applications from Coyne and Bonisese, recent graduates of Marywood University who had obtained Bachelor of Science degrees in Athletic Training. AD Mecca conducted telephone interviews with Coyne and Bonisese for the open athletic trainer positions at Lackawanna.

At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, which she took for the first time on July 25, 2009, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. Id. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Coyne informed AD Mecca of her test results, and AD Mecca also learned Bonisese had failed her second attempt at certification.

AD Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” Id. at 1204. AD Mecca notified Coyne and Bonisese via email and written correspondence that due to their failure to pass the certification exam, they would function as “first responders” instead of “athletic trainers.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed [*7] new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. See Id. More specifically, Shelby Yeager, a professor for Coyne and Bonisese during their undergraduate studies, communicated to AD Mecca her opinion that Coyne and Bonisese were impermissibly providing athletic training services in September 2009. Professor Yeager was aware Lackawanna did not have any full-time athletic trainers on staff2 and noted Coyne and Bonisese, as recent graduates, were inexperienced and did not have the required Board license. Professor Yeager stated that Coyne in particular was “ill-equipped to handle the rigors of a contact sport (like football) as an athletic trainer on her own regardless of whether she managed to pass [the certification] exam and obtain her state license.” Id., quoting Affidavit of Shelby Yeager. With regard to Bonisese, Bryan Laurie, who supervised her as a student, rated her performance as “below average/poor” and provided his assessment that she was not qualified to act as an athletic trainer in March of 2010. Id., citing Affidavit of Bryan Laurie.

Appellee Resch started playing football at the age of six, and continued playing through high school. Id. at 1204-05. Upon graduating from high school in 2008, Resch was accepted at Lackawanna and, hoping to continue playing football, met with Coach Duda prior to arriving for classes. Resch tried out for the Lackawanna football team in the fall of 2008. Resch not only failed to make the roster, but was also placed on academic probation, so he was ineligible to play football in the spring of 2009.

Appellee Feleccia also began playing football as a child at the age of ten, and played through high school. Feleccia was recruited by Coach Duda to play football at Lackawanna. See id. Feleccia did not make the team in the fall of 2008, but practiced with them during that time. During a scrimmage in the fall of 2008, Feleccia tore the labrum in his left shoulder, which was surgically repaired. Feleccia was also placed on academic probation after the fall 2008 semester and temporarily withdrew from Lackawanna. See id.

In mid-January 2010, Resch and Feleccia returned to Lackawanna for the spring semester with the aspiration to make the football team. Id. Lackawanna required appellees to fill out and sign various documents in a “participation packet” before playing with the team, including a “Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement” (the Waiver) and a form including an “Information/Emergency Release Consent” (the Consent).

On March 29, 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice. The team engaged in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” Appellees had previously participated in the Oklahoma Drill, or a variation of it, either in high school or at Lackawanna football practices, and were aware the drill would take place during practices. While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. See Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1207. Notwithstanding Resch’s injury, the Lackawanna football team continued practicing and running the Oklahoma Drill. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder, i.e., experiencing numbness, tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Id. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” Id. Feleccia returned to practice and then suffered a traumatic brachial plexus avulsion while making a tackle with his right shoulder. Id.

The plaintiff’s claims were dismissed based by the trial court on a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants. The Plaintiff’s then appealed that dismissal of their complaint to the Pennsylvania Superior Court (intermediate appellate court). The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court on several issues. The defendants then filed this appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was based on two issues.

a. Is a Pennsylvania college required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes?

b. Is an exculpatory clause releasing “any and all liability” signed in connection with participation in intercollegiate football enforceable as to negligence?

That means the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will only look at the two issues it has decided that need to be reviewed by the Supreme Court and nothing else.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

What is interesting are two things.

First, the court allowed a release to be used by a college to prevent lawsuits when a student is injured during practice for an NCAA sport. The analysis did not center around the relationship between the student athlete and the university; it centered around the fact the University had told student athletes they would have trainers and did not.

Sort of a detrimental reliance claim: I relied upon your statements that then injured me. Or as stated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts §323

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

The court found the College had created an expectation, relied upon by the students, that there would be athletic trainers available on the field during practice. Because the two trainers on the field were not certified, and possibly, to some extent, the actions of the school in changing the requirements or the people on the field to help the athletes from trainers to medical responders, the court found a legal theory where the college could be liable.

The second issue is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of Pennsylvania release law. Under Pennsylvania law “Accordingly, exculpatory contracts are valid and enforceable only when “certain criteria are met.” To meet that criteria the court restated four requirements under Pennsylvania law for a release to be valid.

(1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause).

The first issue the court reviewed in determining if the release was valid was the lack of the word negligence in the release. If the release failed to specifically state the release stopped claims for the defendants negligence was it enforceable. The court said the release was valid even if it did not include the word negligence in its wording. To be valid the release must spell “…out the intention of the parties with particularity” and show “the intent to release [appellants] from liability by express stipulation.”

That means the court must review the party’s intentions in creating the agreement between them. Furthermore, the injuries suffered by the plaintiff must be encompassed within the terms of the release. That does not mean a specific list of injuries, just a general idea that the injury suffered was within the contemplation of the release.

The court then looked at ordinary negligence and gross negligence under Pennsylvania law. The court first stated there is a difference between ordinary, gross and reckless conduct or negligence.

However, the court avoided the issue of defining gross negligence or the issue of whether gross negligence was valid in this claim. The court stated, “([A]s gross negligence is not implicated in the instant matter, we leave for another day the question of whether a release for gross negligence can withstand a public policy challenge.”

The court then looked at how both parties in their briefs defined the actions of the defendant college. The court then reviewed public policy requirements to void a release under Pennsylvania law.

A determination that a contract is unenforceable because it contravenes public policy “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents, governmental practice, or obvious ethical or moral standards. “It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. . . .”

However, the court then stated that pre-injury contracts, releases, are unenforceable when the liability of the defendant arises from recklessness. So the court refused to define gross negligence and used an old definition of recklessness. The Court then held that recklessness, not necessarily defined in a definition of negligence, could void a release.

Again, the Court repeated that Pennsylvania had not defined gross negligence in a civil liability setting.

Thus, although we have not previously settled on a definitive meaning of the term “gross negligence” as compared to “ordinary negligence” in the civil context, we have recognized there is a difference between the two concepts, and they are distinguished by the degree of deviation from the standard of care.

The court did then define gross negligence but did so in a way that did not set the definition in stone under Pennsylvania law. It just pulled definitions of gross negligence from lower courts and did not adopt any of them as the definition.

…in essence, gross negligence is merely negligence with a vituperative epithet. It constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts. It may also be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care comprising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. The term has also been found to mean a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.

Gross negligence has thus been consistently recognized as involving something more than ordinary negligence, and is generally described as “want of even scant care” and an “extreme departure” from ordinary care.

As we have seen, gross negligence does not rise to the level of the intentional indifference or “conscious disregard” of risks that defines recklessness, but it is defined as an “extreme departure” from the standard of care, beyond that required to establish ordinary negligence, and is the failure to exercise even “scant care.

The court then repeated that the release would not stop a claim for gross negligence.

Moreover, although the Waiver bars’ recovery for appellees’ damages arising from ordinary negligence, we hold the Waiver does not bar recovery for damages arising from gross negligence or recklessness, and there remain factual questions regarding whether appellants’ conduct constituted gross negligence or recklessness.

Pennsylvania joins the list of states that a release will not stop a claim for gross negligence. A gross negligence claim must be decided by the trier of fact, the jury, in these cases.

So Now What?

First, we have definitive guidelines from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on how the court wants a release to be written. Second, we know that Pennsylvania joins the majority of states where a release cannot stop a claim for gross negligence.

We also know that recklessness is enough to void a release as well as gross negligence. However, terms we will result in battles by both sides to use the definitions they want applied to the facts of each particular case.

Finally, as in most states, if you make a promise to someone, and they rely on that promise to their detriment, you are going to write a check!

It is an interesting opinion purely from the allowance of the student-athletes to sue their college. However, the reasoning behind how a release must be written in Pennsylvania has great value.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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