Court Rules School District Is Shielded by Immunity in Concussion Case

(Editor’s Note: What follows is an excerpt of one of the articles that appeared in the October issue of Concussion Litigation Reporter.)

A federal judge from the Southern District of Georgia has found that a school district is entitled to immunity in a lawsuit in which it was sued by a high school football player who suffered a concussion in a 2016 game and then remained in the game, suffering additional “blows to the head.” While the legal victory was absolute for the district, the court delivered a mixed ruling to the coach, who was also named in the suit, finding that while he was entitled to qualified immunity for the § 1983 claim against him that he is not entitled to official immunity on the state law claims brought against him in his individual capacity.

The impetus for the lawsuit were the injuries sustained by plaintiff Tyler Bowen as a member of Telfair County High School’s football team. While playing in a football game on Sept. 9, 2016, Tyler suffered a concussion. The football team’s coach and Telfair County High School employee, Matthew Burleson, allowed Tyler to continue playing after Tyler exhibited symptoms of a concussion, according to the complaint. Tyler then suffered more blows to the head during the game. A doctor later diagnosed Tyler with a concussion, his symptoms including cognitive impairment, memory alteration, mood swings, diminished academic ability, and reduced ability to complete everyday activities.

Bowen sued in state court naming Matthew Burleson and Telfair County School District (TCSD) as two defendants among others. The plaintiff alleged negligence and intentional tort claims in addition to a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim. The case was removed to the federal court on Oct. 31, 2018. Defendants Matthew Burleson and TCSD subsequently moved for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c).

The court noted that the defendants’ motion is based on three arguments: 1) Matthew Burleson has qualified immunity for the § 1983 claim against him; 2) TCSD has sovereign immunity under the Georgia Constitution for the state law claims against it; and 3) Burleson has official immunity under the Georgia Constitution for the state law claims against him in his individual capacity.

“Qualified immunity offers complete protection to government officials acting in their discretionary capacity when sued in their individual capacities so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established law,” wrote the court, citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 815-18, 102 S. Ct. 2727, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396 (1982). “An official act within his or her discretionary authority when the ‘objective circumstances . . . compel the conclusion that his actions were undertaken pursuant to the performance of his duties and within the scope of his authority.’ Courson v. McMillian, 939 F.2d 1479, 1487 (11th Cir. 1991). Burleson was acting within his discretionary authority here; there is nothing in the complaint alleging that Burleson was acting outside his authority, and the plaintiff alleges Burleson was an employee of TCSD acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the alleged injury.

“To overcome qualified immunity a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) that the official’s conduct violated a statutory or constitutional right and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. Randall v. Scott, 610 F.3d 701, 715 (11th Cir. 2010); see also Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232-36, 129 S. Ct. 808, 172 L. Ed. 2d 565 (2009) (holding that courts have discretion to conduct the two-part analysis in whichever order is appropriate given the situation).

“(The plaintiff) incorrectly assert that Pearson no longer requires a plaintiff to satisfy both parts of the analysis. Instead, Pearson does away only with the Saucier rule, which was the requirement that courts conduct their analysis of the two parts in order. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236-42 (explaining why the ordering requirement in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S. Ct. 2151, 150 L. Ed. 2d 272 (2001) is sometimes cumbersome when applied at the trial level). Therefore, if the plaintiff has not pleaded facts to satisfy both parts of the analysis, his § 1983 claim will fail.”

With this hurdle in mind, the plaintiff set out to show his “substantive due process rights to physical safety, bodily integrity, and freedom from unreasonable risk of harm under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The court relied heavily on Davis v. Carter, 555 F.3d 979, 982 (11th Cir. 2009), which held that “conduct by a government actor will rise to the level of a substantive due process violation only if the act can be characterized as arbitrary or conscience-shocking in a constitutional sense.”

It added that in Davis v. Carter, “the Eleventh Circuit considered whether a football coach’s conduct at a training session constituted a violation of a student’s substantive due process rights. 555 F.3d at 980-81. There, the defendant coach failed to provide water to the student, ignored the student’s complaints that he was dehydrated, and continued to subject the student to drills even though he had collapsed. Id. The student died the morning following the training session, allegedly as a result of the coach’s conduct. Id. at 981. In reversing the district court and granting the coach’s motion to dismiss, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the coach’s deliberate indifference to the student did not shock the conscience. Id. at 984.”

In the instant case, (the plaintiff alleges in his complaint) that “defendants Burleson and TCSD were negligent and, in the alternative, acted intentionally with ‘actual malice’ to injure the plaintiff. The factual underpinnings for these claims are essentially that Burleson knew or should have known that Tyler Bowen was concussed and prevented him from reentering the game. (Id.) The plaintiff also adds-without elaboration that Burleson ‘acted with actual malice and intent to cause injury to Tyler Bowen.’ (Id. at ¶¶ 32-33.)

“… To conclude, (the plaintiff’s) well-pleaded facts set forth at most a negligence claim which does not constitute a conscience-shocking violation of his substantive due process rights. Accordingly, defendant Burleson is entitled to qualified immunity as to the § 1983 claim against him. See Davis, 555 F.3d at 984.”

Turning to the TCSD’s Sovereign Immunity defense, the court wrote that…

(To read this and more stories like this, visit www.hackneypublications.com/CPL/)

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