During a pee-wee football game, on November 6, 2011, thirteen year-old Donnovan Hill tackled the opposing team’s ball carrier. Immediately following contact, Hill’s body went limp. The doctors who treated Donnovan said he suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury which paralyzed him from the neck down.
A video of the play shows Donnovan lower his head when he goes in for the tackle. He claimed his coaches instructed him to use this head-first technique during practice and prior games. On his behalf, Donnovan’s mother, Crystal Dixon, filed suit in March of 2014 against the three non-profit corporations* that oversaw league activities, as well as individual coaches and league staff for negligence.
The lawsuit claimed the coaches “taught and encouraged Donnovan to use a dangerously negligent tackling technique, and then reinforced the improper technique by failing to correct or reprimand Donnovan when they observed him repeatedly using it in practices and games.” Donnovan also said he spoke out against the technique during one-on-one hitting drills, but was told by one of his coaches to stop whining.
The defense argued the coaches were immune from liability under the Federal Volunteer Protection Act (VPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 14501-05, because they were working within the scope of their responsibilities with non-profit organizations and their instruction could not be considered “an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct in a sport like football that is characterized by aggressive play.”
In December of 2014, the court denied defense’s motion to strike punitive damages based on the fact that a reasonable jury could conclude defendant’s actions were reckless. It also noted the VPA does not protect coaches from reckless or grossly-negligent conduct and held that a jury would be required to determine whether the alleged conduct could be considered grossly-negligent.
Clearly, the coaches acted negligently. Since the coaches completed safety training required by the league, they were aware, or should have been aware of the inherent danger in teaching a head-first tackling technique. California case-law states, “coaches and sports instructors owe a duty to the student not to increase the risks inherent in the learning process undertaken by the student.” It seems clear the coaches breached their duty to the players. Whether or not the coaches’ conduct rose to the level of gross-negligence remains unanswered. The case was settled out of court in January of 2015.
*Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. is the national organization which oversees administration for youth football and cheer programs in 42 states. Orange Empire Conference, Inc. and Lakewood Pop Warner are both Pop Warner Little Scholar’s Inc. organizations headquartered in California.