IMMUNITY-QUALIFIED IMMUNITY-CONCUSSION INJURY IN SCHOOL SPORTING EVENT

November 6th, 2017 by Rieders Travis in Miscellaneous

Mann v. Palmerton Area School District, No. 16-2821 (3rd Cir. September 21, 2017) Vanaskie, C.J.  In November of 2011 Sheldon Mann, a football player for the Palmerton Area School District, experienced a hard hit during a practice session. While some players thought that Sheldon may have been exhibiting concussion-like symptoms, he was sent back into the practice session by his Coach, Appellee Chris Walkowiak. After being returned to practice, Sheldon suffered another violent collision and was removed from the practice field. He would later be diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. In bringing a lawsuit against Palmerton Area and Walkowiak, Sheldon’s parents asserted that by requiring Sheldon to continue to practice after sustaining the first substantial blow, Walkowiak had violated Sheldon’s constitutional right to bodily integrity under a state-created danger theory of liability. Also, Palmerton Area, the Manns alleged, was accountable under Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). The District Court ruled in favor of Walkowiak and Palmerton Area on summary judgment, finding that, while there was ample evidence to suggest that Walkowiak was culpable under a state-created danger theory of liability, a constitutional right to protection in the context presented here was not clearly established in 2011. Accordingly, the District Court granted Walkowiak qualified immunity and dismissed him from the lawsuit on that basis. As to Palmerton Area, the District Court found that the Manns had failed to present evidence sufficient to warrant a jury trial on the question of whether the school district had a custom or policy that caused a violation of Sheldon’s constitutional rights. Accordingly, the District Court entered judgment in favor of Palmerton Area.

We agree with the District Court’s conclusions pertaining to the claims against the football coach: Walkowiak’s alleged conduct, if proven at trial, would be sufficient to support a jury verdict in favor of Mann on his state-created danger claim, but the right in question—to be free from deliberate exposure to a traumatic brain injury after exhibiting signs of a concussion in the context of a violent contact sport—was not clearly established in 2011. Accordingly, the District Court correctly ruled that Coach Walkowiak was entitled to qualified immunity. We also agree with the District Court that the Manns did not present sufficient evidence to warrant a jury trial on the Monell claim against Palmerton Area. We will therefore affirm the District Court’s grant of summary judgment.