How to Systematically Manage the Risks of Sports Concussions

(In an article that appears in Concussion Litigation Reporter, attorneys Patricia  K. Buchanan, J.D., M.B.A. and Donald F. Austin, M.A.T., J.D. of Patterson Buchanan Fobes Leitch & Kalzer, Inc. P.S. offer some suggestions for systematically managing the risks of sports concussions.)

In 2002, an  athlete might have experienced a mild concussion in a game, and under National  Federation of High School Activities Associations (NFHS) return-to-play guidelines, could  return to the game 15 minutes later, so long as the player had been free of  symptoms for 15 minutes. That was standard of care then but is now recognized  by doctors trained in concussions to be a dangerous practice.

While NFHS  changed its guidelines in 2005, many schools undoubtedly have not. Some schools trained coaches regarding sports concussions, but the quality of training  varied and not all coaches were trained. Coaches often did what seemed to make  sense individually at the time, a dangerous thing to do in a medical  emergency.  Since 2005, concussion  return-to-play guidelines have changed considerably. In order to protect  athletes from preventable injuries, and protect schools from litigation, schools need to systematically address sports concussion prevention on a state and district level.

This article offers some suggestions on how to do that  based on Washington State’s experience. To begin  with, Sports Risk Management experts inform us that athletic injuries are caused by one of, or a combination of, six  variables. Schools have some control over five of these variables. Changes in  laws and understanding of sports concussions, as well as the public’s increasing  awareness of the dangers of such concussions, will likely generate more  litigation against schools. Skilled attorneys representing injured athletes  will use the five variables over which schools have control to find a way of  blaming the school for a particular injury. Likewise, schools that take  reasonable precautions to prevent sports injuries can demonstrate that they  have systematically taken measures to prevent such injuries, making it more likely that jurors will conclude that the injury was not the schools’ fault.

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