Wrestling with Official Immunity: Is a Coach Liable for Injuries to Student Athletes at Practice? – By: Conor Neusel

Published by MARE, November 2015

School district employees that serve as coaches are responsible for supervising their players at practice and ensuring, as much as possible, that those players conduct themselves in a safe and competitive manner. Of course, this is easier said than done. No matter how safe a coach attempts to make his or her practices, there is always a risk that a student under his or her supervision may suffer an injury. Any injury to a student athlete comes with the added risk that the student will attempt to hold the coach and the district liable. In such a scenario, the student athlete will allege that the coach’s negligence resulted in his or her injury. But what legal defense does the coach have for such an allegation? The answer may be the doctrine of official immunity. In the recent case of Woods v. Ware, the Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri discussed the doctrine of official immunity as it applies to coaches supervising practice.[1]

In Woods, the middle school’s wrestling coach oversaw a practice that involved both high school wrestlers and middle school wrestlers. No other coaches or district personnel were present. During that practice, one of the eighth grade wrestlers was allegedly injured while participating in a drill performed with another wrestler from the high school wrestling team. That student then filed suit and sought damages from the coach on the basis of negligence.[2]

In his lawsuit, the student alleged that the coach owed the student a duty to provide for the student’s safety and welfare by ensuring that the student was properly supervised and instructed while engaged in wrestling practice. The student further alleged that the coach breached this duty by instructing the student to wrestle a “much more experienced and larger high school wrestler.” In defense, the coach asserted that he was entitled to the protection afforded by the doctrine of official immunity because his actions were in the course and scope of his responsibilities as the wrestling coach at the school and were fully discretionary. Specifically, he asserted that the doctrine of official immunity protected him because there was no statutory or departmentally-mandated duties regarding how he was to conduct wrestling practice. Thus, the pivotal issue for the court to decide was whether the coach was entitled to official immunity.

Official immunity is designed to protect individual public employees who must exercise discretion in the performance of their duties.[3] A discretionary act requires the exercise of reason and discretion in determining how an act should be done or what course of action should be pursued.[4] The official immunity doctrine, however, does not provide immunity for public employees when they are acting in a ministerial capacity.[5] A ministerial function is one which is “of a clerical nature which a public officer is required to perform upon a given state of facts, in a prescribed manner, in obedience to the mandate of legal authority, without regard to his own judgment or opinion concerning the propriety of the act to be performed.”[6] To be liable for official acts, a public employee must violate either a departmentally-mandated duty or a duty imposed by statute or regulation.

The student in Woods asserted that the coach failed to carry out his ministerial duties of following the school district’s and Missouri State High School Activities Association (“MSHSAA”) policies, bylaws, rules and regulations concerning the supervision of students. After reviewing the district’s policies, the court concluded that they did not specifically defined what it means to properly supervise or conduct a wrestling practice. According to the court, “determining how to supervise and conduct the wrestling practice was left to the discretion of the coach.”

Next, the court analyzed MSHSAA Bylaw 301(a) to determine whether it created a ministerial duty that the coach breached when he allowed the student to practice with the high school wrestler. MSHSAA Bylaw 301, entitled “Definitions,” provides:

  • Practice – Any attempt of a coach or teacher to teach any phase of a game or activity to any squad or part of a squad or to have any squad or part of a squad engage in drills under the supervision of a coach, or from directions provided by the coach, involving what has already been taught. Try-outs, so called “skull drill,” “orientation meetings,” etc., are considered practices. Except as provided in Bylaws 232.0-c and 238.2-a, a junior or senior high school student shall be permitted to participate in school practices only with teams of the school where he/she is properly enrolled.

The Woods court noted that Bylaw 301 sets forth definitions and the definition of “practice” does not dictate how a coach should “properly supervise” or ensure the “safety and welfare” of the students engaged in the activity. Furthermore, the court stated that, when read in the context of the entire bylaw, MSHSAA Bylaw 301 merely provides a definition of “practice” to determine whether interscholastic competitions are occurring during practices and whether such practices would be counted as games for the purpose of determining the maximum number of games that a team may play during the season. For these reasons, the court decided that, as a matter of law, MSHSAA Bylaw 301(a) did not create a ministerial duty. According to the court, the coach was performing a discretionary act when he supervised and conducted the wrestling practice when the student was injured. Because a discretionary duty was involved, the coach’s exercise of that discretion was protected by the doctrine of official immunity.

Woods v. Ware provides helpful insight as to how Missouri courts apply the official immunity doctrine to athletic coaches. As long as students are permitted to play sports for their schools, injuries are going to occur in games and practices. It is inevitable. The coaches in Missouri’s schools are responsible for making sure the practices are conducted in a safe manner. That said, determining how to supervise and conduct practices is normally left to the discretion of the coach. If they do retain that discretion, like the coach in Woods v. Ware, coaches will have a strong argument to avoid liability when one of their student athletes is injured. Of course, each district’s policies and regulations are different. Some district policies may mandate coaches take certain safety precautions when overseeing practice. If so, coaches should be sure to follow those mandates. Because if they fail to do so, they may not be able to argue that their duties were discretionary and protected by the doctrine of official immunity. Determining whether a rule or regulation creates a ministerial duty is often difficult. If you or your employees have questions, make sure you contact your school attorney for guidance.

[1] — S.W.3d —- (September 29, 2015) (WD 78040).

[2] To establish a claim for negligence, a plaintiff in Missouri must prove: (1) a legal duty on the part of the defendant to use ordinary care to protect the plaintiff against unreasonable risks of harm; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a proximate cause between the breach and the resulting injury; and (4) actual damages to the plaintiff’s person or property. Cook v. Smith, 33 S.W.3d 548, 553 (Mo. App. W.D. 2000)

[3] Davis v. Lambert-St. Louis Int’l Airport, 193 S.W.3d 760, 765 (Mo. banc 2006)

[4] Id. at 763.

[5] Southers v. City of Farmington, 236 S.W.3d 603, 610 (Mo. banc 2008).

[6] Id.

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