Cope v. Utah Valley State College – Liability for Student Athlete Injuries

Intercollegiate sports generate many millions of dollars annually for universities and colleges nationwide. Just as one example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has a seven-year, $1 billion contract with CBS.
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Colleges benefit a great deal financially from their student athletes, and this has generated a debate regarding the duty of care owed by these institutions to student athletes. Generally, colleges may be bound by general theories of negligence with regard to most students, but many student athletes have asserted – successfully – that a “special relationship” exists between them and the school, which increases the duty of care owed by the school to the student athletes.

Establishment of this “special relationship” can be critical in negligence litigation, where otherwise a school might argue it had no duty of care to someone injured. Courts have generally not been inclined to find colleges liable for injuries to students while they are attending classes. Basically, it’s been assumed college students are mature adults, capable of independently looking out for their own safety. General negligence laws may apply in injuries, but it holds colleges to a lower standard with regard to protection of students. A primary exception, however, is when a special relationship exists. Essentially, this heightens the duty of care standard regarding foreseeable injuries involving student athletes.

The recent case of Cope v. Utah Valley State College before the Utah Supreme Court resulted in a finding that student-athletes do have a “special relationship” with the school, and thus are owed greater protection. Our Anderson injury lawyers know this follows legal trends among courts across the country.

According to court records, student was a member of the ballroom dance team at her school. She was also enrolled in a ballroom dance class that awarded her academic credit for participation. During a team practice, plaintiff was rehearsing a choreographed dance routine with a partner when he attempted a lift multiple times, but did not complete it properly. Usually, spotters are provided to catch female dancers if they fall, but one was not requested or provided in this instance.

The dance partner told the instructor he could not successfully perform the lift, and the instructor told him to try again on the other shoulder. He said if it was not properly completed, it would have to be cut from the routine. The partner lost his footing, and plaintiff fell, slamming her head onto her partner’s knee.

She later sued the school, alleging negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior for the teacher’s poor instruction. Defendant school sought summary judgment arguing it owed no duty to protect plaintiff from harm because it had no special relationship with her. Initially, the trial court denied that motion, but later granted the motion on grounds instructor gave the option of cutting the routine.

The appellate court reversed, finding a special relationship was created because:

  • A directive was given to the student
  • By a teacher or coach
  • Within the scope of an academic enterprise

The state supreme court granted review and affirmed the ruling, but for different legal reasons. The school created, funded and supervised the ballroom dance team. This action resulted in establishing a duty by the school to act in a reasonable manner to prevent injuries caused by the dance team – including with regard to providing reasonable instruction.

The failure to provide spotters and to reportedly give a faulty instruction created ample grounds for the lawsuit.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Cope v. Utah Valley State College, Nov. 21, 2014, Utah Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Cricket Player Dead from Traumatic Brain Injury, Dec. 1, 2014, Anderson Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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