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Monthly Archives: January 2009

Just how far can coaches go with student athletes?

This interesting legal case from the 11th circuit Court of Appeals in Georgia details just how far a high school football coach can go before being held responsible for injuries to a student. As revealed in the decision, it is a pretty high threshold that a plaintiff must overcome in order to impose liability.

In the case, plaintiffs alleged that the coaches violated Tyler Davis’s substantive due process rights during a voluntary football workout session because: (1) Davis was deprived of water and exhibited signs of overheating; (2) when Davis collapsed on the football field, the coaches deliberately chose not to assist him or immediately summon medical assistance; and (3) these deliberate decisions resulted in the deprivation of his right to life, liberty, health, bodily integrity, and safety. Plaintiffs alleged the coaches’ actions culminated in Davis’s death during the early morning hours the following day. The lower court found these facts, if proven, were sufficient to support a finding that the coaches acted willfully or maliciously with an intent to injure Davis. But the appeals court disagreed and reversed the decision.

The court reasoned that Tyler Davis voluntarily participated in an extracurricular afterschool activity, so no custodial relationship existed between himself and the school. And the court found that the allegations did not support a finding that the coaches acted willfully or maliciously with an intent to injure Davis. The court also noted that while the facts allege that the coaches were deliberately indifferent to the safety risks posed by their conduct to Davis, in a school setting case, allegations of deliberate indifference, without more, do not rise to the conscience-shocking level required for a constitutional violation.

In reaching this conclusion, the court relied on several cases which determined just how far students can pushed before they can bring a constitutional claim.

Where one coach intentionally struck a student with a metal weight lock, knocking the student’s eye out of its socket, as a form of punishment for his involvement in a fight with another student, that was a constitutional violation. In another case, a high school principal violated a student’s constitutional rights after he struck the student with a metal cane in the head, ribs, and back for disciplinary reasons.

In two other cases, however, substantive due process violations were not found because they did not shock the conscience. In the first case, a college student, Melanie Dacosta brought a §1983 claim against her instructor whom she had followed out of the classroom after the instructor ignored Dacosta’s questions in class. The instructor then darted back inside the class and slammed the door on Dacosta, which caused her arm to shatter the glass window of the door and become lodged in the glass pane. After the instructor unsuccessfully tried to knock Dacosta back from the door by swinging it violently several times, he reached through the cracked pane and shoved Dacosta’s face. The court held that this conduct alleged no more than the tort of battery, and did not reach constitutional proportions.

In the second, a high school teacher instructed his students to hold on to a live wire during a voltage-reading demonstration in his electromechanical class. He informed his students they might die if they accidently touched the exposed part of the wire. The teacher increased the power to the wire, turned away to answer a question, and turned back to find a student who had touched the wire gasping for breath. After the student died, his parents brought a § 1983 suit and alleged “the actions of the defendants ‘were particularly arbitrary, reckless, and deliberately indifferent.'” The court emphasized that mere negligence is insufficient to sustain a constitutional claim, while actions intended to injure and that are unrelated to any governmental interest are likely to rise to the conscience-shocking level.

As is clear, coaches can go pretty far before any constitutional violations will be found. A complete copy of the decision is included below.

Private hearings of civil cases likely to be allowed in Rhode Island

The justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court appear ready to implement rules to effectuate a law that would allow people to hire retired judges to preside over private trials in civil cases.

Under Rhode Island’s Retired Justice Trial Act, litigants decide where the case would be heard and pay all costs — including the fee for the retired judge whose decisions, the law states, would “have the same force and effect as if it had been entered or made by an active judge of the court.” It would be a system, advocates say, similar to private arbitration and mediation.

The judges did not express “reservations over the constitutional implications raised by some who argued against the law’s implementation.” Now, the General Assembly would have to “amend or revoke the law, which has been on the books since 1984 but never used.” Miriam Weizenbaum “spoke out against implementing the law on behalf of the state association of plaintiff’s trial lawyers, the Rhode Island Association for Justice.”

For the complete story from the Providence Journal, click here. For the ABA Journal report, click here.

Juror removed from trial because of body odor

Can the dismissal of a juror who reeks, wreak havoc on the judicial system? One Massachusetts defendant thought so, and brought his case to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. In Commonwealth v. Rakeen Young, the defendant claimed that he was prejudiced when the judge erroneously dismissed a juror, who was seated but not sworn, because her strong body odor was negatively affecting the other jurors.

The defendant asserted that dismissal of the unsworn juror was not in the best interests of justice because there was no evidence that she could not carry out her responsibilities as a juror. The defendant also noted that the juror was of the same race as the defendant.

Prior to the jury being given the oath, the judge dismissed the juror and subsequently made the following findings on the record:

There was a juror seated in seat No. 10, juror 6-5, . . . who I’d made inquiry of earlier. And I just want the record to reflect, I guess, to be blunt, [the juror], for whatever reason, had some very bad, I guess to be blunt again, body odor, which was extremely strong, and I was able to detect in my lobby, as was the clerk, which is a personal matter for that potential juror, but for the fact that her personal problem was [of] such a magnitude that other jurors who had already been picked . . . either by act or words had indicated discomfort with that problem.

The judge then addressed the defendant’s objection to the juror’s removal, stating, “my concern is not her background, but rather that I have [sixteen] jurors who are able to function. And given the strength of the body odor, I’m satisfied that the other jurors would be put at a distinct disadvantage in their efforts to concentrate. So I note your objection, but she has been excused.”

The Appeals Court ruled that the judge’s dismissal of the juror was not an abuse of her discretion. The court noted that the judge made sufficient findings on the record regarding her concern that the juror’s body odor would affect the ability of the other jurors to concentrate.

It just goes to show you that even jurors have to pass the sniff test when it comes to the administration of justice.

Gift card litigation on the rise

Lawsuits involving gift card fees have been increasing across the nation according to a report in the National Law Journal. According to the report, these lawsuits are hitting a multibillion-dollar industry that up until the current economic meltdown has enjoyed huge success. Gift-card spending has soared during the past five years, from $17.2 billion in 2003 to $24.9 billion in 2008.

The lawsuits are questioning dormancy fees (extra fees that are charged if the card isn’t used within 12 months), defunct retailers like Sharper Image that have not honored gift cards, and companies that are refusing to honor low balances on the cards. The cases challenge companies that continue to take advantage of consumers. A similar lawsuit in the Massachusetts courts was dismissed by a judge who ruled that Simon gift cards which charge fees and expire before seven years do not come within the scope of the Massachusetts gift certificate statute (see Simon mall gift cards not subject to certificate statute).

Some states have passed legislation to aid consumers in this area. According to Chicago-based Winston & Strawn, which tracks the legislation, 11 states prohibit fees on gift cards. They are Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont. Thirteen other states limit fees on gift cards, including New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Texas. Nine states prohibit expiration dates, including California, Connecticut, Florida and Washington. As we reported recently, the Massachusetts legislature took an anti-consumer stance, however, by offering greater protection to gift card issuers (see Simon mall gift cards not subject to certificate statute).

We trust that consumers will continue to fight this unjust enrichment, and that someday, they will get what they pay for, and merchants will honor their bargains.