Georgia Grants Sports Officials Limited Immunity From Civil Lawsuits
Georgia Personal Injury Attorneys Talk About Laws Protecting Sports Officials
As the NFL season finally arrives and high school football, along with other sports, are in full gear, the attention of thousands of people throughout Georgia will be drawn to gridirons, soccer fields, and other playing fields across the state. None of the games can take place without the oversight of officials and referees. Officials might deserve our ire from time to time for making wrong or inconsistent calls, but they perform a very valuable function, especially for scholastic and youth athletes. They are in control over games and events to a large extent, but they are not in control over everything and tend to be the brunt of the blame for many mishaps and injuries that happen during games. Perhaps that is the reason why the state of Georgia grants sports officials limited immunity from civil lawsuits.
Georgia code §51-1-41 protects sports officials from lawsuits. The statute indicates that sports officials who preside over amateur sporting events are immune from civil liability for damages or loss stemming from the official's action, or inaction, at the game site. The conduct in question must be related to the official's duties and not in some other capacity the person might have. The statute also extends to coaches and personnel associated with the instruction of amateur athletes who do not receive compensation. However, there is an exception to the rule. Officials can be held liable for any conduct that is "intentional, willful, wanton, reckless, malicious, or grossly negligent."
The Georgia Court of Appeals analyzed this statute in the context of a lawsuit against a volunteer coach for a recreational league run by a Georgia municipality. Specifically, the Court determined what conduct could constitute "gross negligence" under the statute. In the case, a child was a participant in a city-run park and recreation program. The injured child engaged in track and field exercises, including the long jump. The program also included instruction from a volunteer coach with experience in track and field.
The coach tried to correct the child's running form to help him jump farther. To do so, the coach placed a very low hurdle on the track to encourage the children to jump as high as they could. The coach watched carefully as the child ran toward the hurdle, but knew that the child ran while leaning forward before he sustained injury.
The child's parents sued the municipality that ran the program. The plaintiffs alleged that the coach was grossly negligent in asking the child to jump over the hurdle. As part of the proof, the plaintiffs had expert witness who concluded that the coach should not have used the hurdle with children who lacked experience and for this reason, they argued, the coach was negligent.
The Court turned to the meaning of gross negligence in Georgia law. In Georgia, gross negligence is the failure to the level of caution that every person who possessed common sense would use even if the person were careless. To put it another way, someone who is grossly negligent acts without any concern for if a person could be hurt. Under these circumstances, the Court ruled that the coach was not grossly negligent.
It is important to recognize that the case does not stand for the idea that no official could ever be found responsible for another's injuries, but that the plaintiff has a higher burden than the average negligence case because of the near-immunity sports officials and amateur coaches enjoy.
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Sources: Cited within and Heard v. City of Villa Rica, 701 SE 2d 915 - Ga: Court of Appeals 2010
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