Can Volunteer Coaches Be Held Liable for Youth Injuries?
As a both a Board Member and the Attorney for a youth football organization, one thing that has always concerned me is the liability of the volunteers who donate their time to our teams. I have coached several of my children’s football and basketball teams over the past six years. I have enjoyed the experience immensely and recommend it both as a way of giving back to your community and also developing a better relationship with your children.
That being said, many people avoid volunteering due to their concerns about liability related to child injuries. Football in particular is a very physical sport, which has garnered national attention with regards to brain injury concerns. These concerns have plagued both the National Football League and youth sports teams in recent years. It would seem that one of the greatest fears a volunteer in any sports league may have is that an angry parent could sue them for failing to protect a child from injury.
Thankfully, the Federal legislature and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have enacted statutes protecting volunteer coaches from the result of unavoidable accidents, and in effect, from the result of their negligence. Both legislatures recognize that the vast majority of sports in the United States are coached by individuals who are volunteers and do not get paid for their time and effort. In fact, a very limited number of people in the United States are lucky enough to be paid to coach. Frankly, many of these individuals might say that they are not lucky, but rather, simply stressed out because of the obligations to win as a paid coach!
Pennsylvania has established a statute (§8332.1) that helps protect volunteer coaches from acts of negligence. The legislature assumes that individuals who coach children on a volunteer basis are not as knowledgeable and capable as the individuals who are professional, paid coaches. In effect, the state prevents and protects these coaches from being held liable by reducing the standard of care to that of similar individuals in similar organizations. Simply put, volunteers are not held to the standard of professional coaches, although the individual must be acting within the scope of their responsibilities to the organization to be protected by the statute.
A Federal law, the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 (The Act), goes a little farther in establishing that individuals must be properly certified to perform their responsibilities for the volunteer organization. The Act specifically states that if the harm was not caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless conduct or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights and safety of the individual harmed, then the volunteer is protected. Moreover, punitive damages may not be awarded unless there is a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed.
Therefore, when volunteering for your child’s sports league, be aware that there are substantial statutes in place to protect you from civil actions arising out of an injury or harm to one of your players. Hopefully, this will encourage you to make the decision to volunteer your time to help both your child and others.