Are high school coaches liable for sports-related concussions?

Are high school coaches liable for sports-related concussions?


Are high school coaches liable for sports-related concussions?


At 16, Destin Julian suffered a seizure following a head-to-head blow during a high school football game. The injury put him in the hospital, and Julian never played again.

According to our partners at the Detroit Free Press, Julian and his parents are now, more than two years later, suing Hamady High School football coach Gary Lee and the Westwood Heights School District near Flint.

“Two days earlier, he had suffered a similar helmet-to-helmet injury at practice, his family says, but his coach allegedly discouraged him from seeing a doctor and encouraged him to play in the homecoming game,” according to Tresa Baldas of the Detroit Free Press.

Julian told the Free Press that Lee “fostered a climate of fear and intimidation.”

The lawsuit begs the question: Are high school coaches liable for sports-related concussions?

Our conclusion: Yes, to an extent.

According to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, it’s up to each individual school to determine liability.

However, all coaches are required to be trained and versed in how to recognize a concussion, but that training is only required to happen every three years, per Michigan law. Schools are also required to provide information to students and parents on signs and symptoms of a concussion.

Before students can participate in sports each year, they are required to get a physical in which students are given a brief check-up. The MHSAA provides this form to schools and physicians, but it is not required that they fill out that specific form.

In the fine print, this form requires parents to acknowledge that MHSAA holds no liability, but schools are not included in that waiver.

“Some schools will use different forms, just because it happens to be more convenient for them,” said John Johnson MHSAA’s director of broadcast properties by phone.

According to their website, Hamady High utilizes the form, but Westwood Heights’ superintendent, Peter Toal, did not confirm what other forms their district uses.

Johnson said the association has no way of keeping track of which schools utilize their form, but said many schools do — based on how many forms they print each year.

Union High School, in Grand Rapids, is one of them.

“All students fill out the MHSAA form before they can even come to practice,” said Union High’s athletic director, Justin Walker.

Walker said every July all coaches go through the same concussion training. Coaches are also reminded prior to their season: “You do not treat, assess or diagnose a concussion.”

Instead, Union coaches are tasked with recognizing the signs and then referring the student athlete to the school’s full-time athletic trainer.

Walker said despite what kind of fall it is, students must see the athletic trainer. The athletic trainer then gets the final say.

“When you have someone who is not trained making a decisions about health issues, you open yourself up to huge liability, ” Walker said. “But besides liability, you are putting that athlete’s health at risk, which is the greatest concern. Parents trust us with their most prized possession. The last thing we want to do is have a coach make an assessment about their child’s health.”

Walker said any coach who failed to report an injury or encouraged a player to play through it would be disciplined.

Even if a student says they feel fine, Walker said the decisions is “absolutely not” up to them, nor their parents.

“Everyone wants to get back on the field…but sometimes, you have to protect them against themselves,” Walker said.

The only way a student will wind up back on the field following an injury is with clearance from a medical professional.

Grand Rapids Public Schools work with Spectrum Health to have full-time athletic trainers on staff at each of their schools.

Dr. Katie Scott, a clinical neuropsychologist with Spectrum Health, said schools should abide by the six-step plan outlined by the MHSAA.

This begins after the student experiences a 24-hour symptom free period. From there, the student is allowed to increase levels of activity over the course of the next five days.

For more on this story, please visit our Michigan TEGNA affiliate WZZM right here 


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