<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=183154879077085&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

New Jersey Supreme Court Establishes Standard of Care By Coaches In Sports Tort Case

December 14, 2022 Guillermo J. Gonzalez

Introduction and Facts of Case

In a recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, it determined “the standard of care that should apply to a coach’s decision to allow a high school field hockey team to practice in an area adjacent to an ongoing soccer practice.” Dennehy v. E. Windsor Regl. Bd. of Educ., 086350, 2022 WL 14668556 (N.J. Oct. 26, 2022).

In 2015, a seventeen-year-old high school senior and member of the girl’s field hockey was coached by defendant Dezarae Fillmyer. The school’s athletic director had arranged afterschool sports practices so that the field hockey team’s practice would begin when the boys’ soccer team’s use of the turf field ended. Prior to practice, the coach had instructed her players to begin warming up in the “D-Zone”, an area between continuous athletic fields and the turf field. A few years prior a twenty-foot-high ball stopper net had been installed at the ends of the turf field to prevent ball interference in other areas. While field hockey players were warming up, at least two soccer balls from the soccer practice had landed near the field hockey players.

As the high school senor was taking shots on goal, an errant soccer ball cleared the ball stopper and struck her skull, allegedly causing injury. Plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit against the coach, school, and athletic director, among others. Plaintiff asserted that she sustained injuries due to the defendants’ failure to supervise, provide safeguards, post warnings, and prevent a foreseeable dangerous condition.


Lower Court Decisions

The trial court held that the Plaintiff was required to show defendants’ acts or omission rose to at least a degree of recklessness, rather than a simple negligence standard. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court, determining that Crawn recklessness standard was inapplicable because the coach was not a co-participant in the activities. As a result, the Appellate Division determined that simple negligence standard applied to the coach. As such, the Supreme Court granted certification in this unique sports case.


New Jersey Supreme Court Holding

In discussing the heighten recklessness standard, the Supreme Court delineate differences in participation of an athletic activity and coaching such an activity. For example, in Crawn, the plaintiff-catcher was injured by the defendant-runner in a softball game. In Schnick, the defendant-golfer struck another golfer with a golf ball. The New Jersey Supreme Court also previously applied the heighten recklessness standard to a collision between and skier and a snowboarder, in addition to a collision between skydivers and roller skaters.

However, unlike those cases, the defendant-coach in Dennehy was not actively participating in the recreational activity at the time of accident. The court rejected Fillmyer’s argument that she was participating in her team’s informal pre-practice warmups. There were no allegations that she was wielding a field hockey stick or actively engaging in practice. Likewise, Plaintiff had based her claim on the defendant-coaches supervisory role in selecting the timing and location of the team’s informal practice. Thus, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that the case did not warrant the heighted recklessness standard and a simple negligence standard was appropriate.

If you’ve been injured in a sports related activity, please call our law firm for a free consultation



Guillermo J. Gonzalez

NJ Attorney with extensive experience on Bankruptcy Law Real Property Law, Litigation, and Immigration Law. Dedicated Associate Attorney at Scura, Wigfield, Heyer, Stevens, & Cammarota LLP.

Need Help? Contact Us Today!