Prior to becoming an attorney, I taught high school physical education in Western Pennsylvania for 12 years. I also coached gymnastics and track. I have a masters degree in the scientific basis of physical education and sports. I then came to UNLV to work on my doctorate in Education Administration. I taught physical education classes at UNLV for two years prior to entering law school.
My education and experiences in these areas gives me the unusual background which enables me to comment on the topic of legal liability of physical education teachers and coaches.
The thing that exposes physical education teachers and coaches to more liability than classroom teachers is “movement”. The amount of student movement in the classroom is limited; therefore, the classroom teacher does not have the liability exposure of a PE teacher or coach. Add to that the fact that PE teachers and coaches deal with many students moving at the same time. We also have projectiles mixed in with his movement – such as baseballs, softballs, footballs, tennis balls, discus, shot-put, javelin, etc. – which can cause injuries. We also deal with various instruments that propel these projectiles to high speeds. These include bats, golf clubs and tennis rackets, etc. You get the picture. So, because of “movement” the chance of injury to our students and athletes is exponentially higher than the liability of the classroom teacher.
The premise of physical education is that movement of the human body carries with it certain physical, social and emotional benefits. So there is no way to eliminate movement form what coaches and PE teachers do.
Furthermore, your facilities are of greater size than that of classrooms. There is more areas for PE teachers to cover and supervise. Your facilities include both indoor and outdoor areas.
Many of you also must deal with the presence of water in the form of swimming pools and showers.
Obviously, no students or athletes should ever be left in a swimming pool without teacher or coach supervision. A swimming pool should remain locked when not in use and the teacher or coach should be the first person in the pool and the last person out. The danger of drowning and slips and falls goes hand-in-hand with pools and shower facilities.
It is my position that a PE teacher should be the first person into a gym or pool, especially when equipment is present which can create a potential for injury. The gym or pool should always remain locked when not in use, and the PE teacher and coach should be the last to leave. This rule is probably a bit idealistic; however I strongly believe that it is necessary.
Accordingly, in order to prevent accidental injury to our students and athletes, PE teachers and coachs must be concerned with safety of students and athletes much more so than the classroom teacher.
The law that applies to the primary liability exposure of a PE teacher or coach is “negligence”. Under the law of negligence a person has the duty to act in a reasonable manner when it come to the safety of others. If you create an unreasonable risk of harm (by omission or by commission) and somebody gets hurt, your are responsible for the injured person’s damages in the form of medical expenses, loss of income and earnings capacity and for intangible damages for physical and mental pain and suffering.
In Nevada , if you are acting within the course and scope of your employment with a city, county or the state, you have a statutory limit on your liability exposure of $75,000.00. However, teachers and coaches get involved with little league, midget football, AAU sports programs, etc., where they are not in the course and scope of your employment with a public school. Thus, not every liability exposure will be protected by the statutory cap on damages. Private school teachers do not have the benefit of this liability cap.
When we coach activities outside the public school, we often use our personal cars to transport students. This exposes us to potential liability for injuries caused by our negligent driving.
If an at-fault swimming pool accident occurs while we are working for a public school, then the school district will pay for damages, subject to the statutory cap. You will be protected by the cap and you won’t have to pay, so long as you were in the course and scope of your employment. When you are involved in coaching or teaching an activity outside of the course and scope of your employment, your assets are personally exposed.
Therefore, it is important to be concerned about safety, because following reasonable safety procedures is your duty of reasonable care to your students and athletes. Anytime that you cut corners on any safety procedure, you can be exposed to potential liability.
If you belong to any professional association, they may offer liability insurance at a nominal rate. Volunteer coaches may be protected by liability coverage of the league in which you involved. If you coach, you should inquire into these types of liability insurance protections which may or may not be available to your athletic association or league.
There are many basic rules that can protect you from liability. These are too numerous to list, however the following are some of the more basic safety rules:
- Don’t hide in your office between classes. You have the responsibility to supervise your students. They can wander off and get involved in all sorts of mischief. Students can get into fights and altercations with other students which may require your intervention. There are many entrances and exits to a PE or athletic complex. You and your fellow teachers and coaches have the duty to provide reasonable supervision these entrances and exits. This will involve the establishment of a plan and cooperation of your co-workers.
- Always keep your pool and gym locked between classes. Don’t give your keys to students. These areas should be locked between classes especially when there is equipment set up in the gym. Always check the pool and gym for the presence of students and athletes before you lock the doors.
- Mats should always be under any equipment which creates the possibility that as student may fall. The greater the danger the more matting is required. Never allow the use of any equipment without adequate matting.
- It is my strong opinion that some activities should not be taught in PE classes. Gymnastics should be limited to basic tumbling and basic vaulting skills. If vaulting activities are used then students must be individually spotted. Most students do not have the strength to perform skills while hanging or supporting their bodies with their arms. Therefore there exists the likelihood of falls. If the fall occurs while some is in an inverted position this can cause is spinal injuries, paralysis and even death. Trampoline (including various types of mini tramps) should ever be taught in PE classes. If these tramps are used in extracurricular activities such as cheerleading and gymnastics, make sure that there is you have insurance to cover accidents. You may be surprised that many insurance companies won’t insure trampolines, or the premium for this coverage may be unaffordable.
- For example, remember that even innocent activities like softball can be dangerous if basic rules are not followed. When there is a fly ball students must be instructed to call for it, and the persons not calling for the catch should back off. There is always a risk of collision between students especially when you have 30 students on the fielding team and not just 9. Head to head collisions and collisions between large and small students carry with them the likelihood of serious injuries. Remember that there are safety rules that apply to all sports.
- Check surfaces where water is present to determine if slip resistant surfaces are inadequate or worn.
- Do an inspection of your facilities on a monthly basis. Report any maintenance repair problems to your maintenance department and to the school administration.
- Use appropriate safety equipment for each sport or activities. If eye protection is reasonable then make provisions to obtain and to use it.
- Keep non-participating students out of harms way.
- If a student gives you a doctor’s excuse follow the physicians instructions.
- Go over safety rules with your students for each new sport or activity.
- Do not use strenuous exercise to discipline or punish students. Consult with your school nurse to determine if you have any students who have medical conditions that cannot tolerate any strenuous activity. Never have any physical contact with any student, unless he your safety and the safety of your students is in jeopardy.
When I taught PE, our high school district established a safety committee. One person from each department was assigned to identify and report safety hazards to buildings and grounds (maintenance) and to the superintendent. We identified hazards and immediately repaired them so that they would not be a source of potential injury.
Risk management is concerned with the identification, assessment and control of risks that can endanger students and cause injuries. Identifying risks is critical to safety. Risk probabilities can be dividend into he following categories:
- Very likely to occur- high potential for serious injury.
- Some chance of occurrence- high potential for serious injury.
- Small chance of occurrence- high potential for serious injury.
- Very little chance of occurrence- high potential for serious injury.
These should be addressed immediately and given high priority.
When the risk involves a medium and low potential for serious injury, these potential risks should be immediately addressed but should have less priority of than those risks which have the potential for serious injury.
Much of what is presented in this article may seem like common sense procedures to you. If this article does not trigger any proactive response from you, go back and read it again, because when it comes to safety, there is always room for improvement.
There always will be risks that cannot be fully identified, prevented or contained. Chances are that you will not be held responsible for those types of risks because they are not foreseeable. In preventing accidents decisions should be made that will prevent accidents thus mitigating your liability exposure. Always be proactive and when it comes to preventing accidents and make sure that you have adequate insurance to protect your personal assets.