Out of Bounds: The Lower Standard of Supervisory Liability for Sporting Events
By Paul V. Esposito
Times have changed. Back in the day, high school sports were generally limited to four: football, basketball, league baseball, and track. Not so today. Students also can play soccer, lacrosse, rugby, golf, tennis, softball, badminton, ice hockey, and cross-country—just to mention the outdoor sports. Now add indoor sports like fencing, swimming, water polo, wrestling, cheerleading, gymnastics, and volleyball. That’s a good thing. It allows students to find and use their talents productively.
But it makes demands on school facilities, a demand that doubled as girls became more involved. Scheduling is increasingly complicated. And practices are more congested. There are only so many places to put so many kids at any given time. Safety, always an issue, becomes a greater one.
It became a greater issue in New Jersey when a goalie was injured during warm-ups. For her coach, it has become a potential liability based on a seemingly surprising new standard. Dennehy v. East Windsor Reg. Bd. of Ed., 267 A.3d 1156, 2022 N.J. LEXIS 87.
Dezarae Fillmyer coached a girls’ field hockey team. The athletic director scheduled Fillmyer’s team to practice immediately after the boys’ soccer team finished practicing. While the girls awaited their turn, Coach Fillmyer instructed them to warm up in the D-zone, an area between fields. The school had installed 20-foot high nets at the ends of the soccer field to prevent balls from intruding into other areas. But during the warm-up, two soccer balls landed near the girls.
Morgan Dennehy was the goalie for the girls’ team. She was not involved with other girls in the warm-ups. At Morgan’s request, Coach Fillmyer allowed her to take a practice shot. As Morgan shot, a soccer ball cleared the net and hit the base of her skull.
Morgan sued Coach Fillmyer, the board of education, school, athletic director, and others for their allegedly negligent failure to supervise and provide warnings and safeguards. The trial judge ruled for defendants because Morgan’s allegations did not support a claim of intentional or reckless conduct. Morgan’s appeal only challenged the recklessness standard applied to Fillmyer. The Appellate Division reversed, ruling that because Fillmyer was not a co-participant, her conduct must be measured under a negligence standard. The New Jersey Supreme Court decided to look deeper.
Morgan’s was not the first New Jersey case to consider the issue of liability for injuries incurred during sporting events. The issue arose when during a scheduled informal softball game, a catcher sustained injuries resulting from a play at the plate. The Supreme Court ruled that to promote active participation and to avoid excessive litigation, the duty to participants is to refrain from reckless or intentional conduct. Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494 (1994). The Court later extended Crawn’s applicability to other recreational sporting events, whether involving contact or non-contact sports.
But the Court saw Morgan’s case differently because she did not allege that Fillmyer was actively participating in the warm-ups. The “essence of [Morgan’s] theory” was that Fillmyer chose the wrong time and place to start practice. The Court compared it to “a biology teacher taking a class out to study marine life at the beach”—an act that should impose a duty of reasonable care. So, the Court ruled that Fillmyer is subject to liability for her conduct. What will happen remains to be seen.
Learning Point: The decision seems surprising because the Court simultaneously subjects coaches to liability while minimizing their roles in a sport. A coach is an active participant in organized sports because at every level, organized sports do not happen without one. A coach tries out the players, assesses their skills, assigns positions, sets lineups, and makes needed substitutions during games—all essential to the game itself. A coach meets with players before, during, and after practices and games. A coach’s active participation is as critical as a player’s talent. Without a coach, players will likely not get a chance to compete. It seems unfair to lower the liability standard for the coach when a player’s liability standard is high.
The ruling puts coaches in difficult positions. Morgan’s theory was that the coach put her in the wrong field at the wrong time. But unlike a biology teacher’s unnecessarily sending students to a beach, a practice field is the normal classroom for student-athletes. The athletic director scheduled the practice for immediately after the boys’ practice. Fillmyer needed to be there on time to take full advantage of the field, so she and the team arrived early. They were essentially waiting just outside the classroom door. To keep the team organized and focused, she had them warm up behind a 20-foot fence—the school’s answer to the risk of errant shots. One more: Morgan, not the coach, wanted the practice shot that put her in position for injury. Why would a coach want to risk personal liability under those or similar circumstances? At least in New Jersey, the decision should make people think twice about coaching.
And with all the need for good coaching, that’s not a good thing.