When lawyers file a lawsuit, they look for as many defendants as they can find. Don’t just sue the truck driver that ran into your client, sue the company that sent the driver on the trip. Don’t stop with the doctor who made a mistake, include the hospital. The idea is to get access to as many deep pockets as possible. In many cases, that’s not hard to do, because employers find it hard to avoid liability for the negligent acts their employees commit in the course of their jobs.   

Of course, most associations work hard to make sure their officials are not employees, but independent contractors. Consequently, associations are not automatically liable for the negligent acts of their officials. However, that doesn’t mean the enterprising plaintiff’s lawyer is totally out of luck. It just means he has to allege that the association itself was negligent in training or assigning its officials. While it’s possible to imagine a complaint alleging that an association’s negligent assignment of an official to a game resulted in some sort of injury or damage, of all the activities an association takes on, training clearly presents the greatest potential for legal risk.

A great example of how important training can be is the emphasis the NFHS and state associations have placed on training officials to properly handle possible concussions. Naturally, their primary concern is for the safety of the student-athletes, but once they decided to address the issue of head injuries at all in the context of the rules, they had to make sure for legal reasons that they have a sound training program in place.

Almost all local associations have no choice but to take on the job of training their officials in one way or another. It’s one of the main reasons local associations exist. As a result, they have a legal obligation to conduct their training in a reasonable fashion, doing what they can to make sure their members know and properly apply and enforce the rules. Take, for instance, these five areas of training where failures could be more likely to lead to legal liability.

Know the rules regarding safe equipment

In a freshman game, the catcher makes the third out and a sub runs out to warm up the pitcher while he gets his gear back on. If the sub is hit by a bouncing fast ball and gets hurt because he doesn’t have the required protective gear on, the association needs to show it gives training on required equipment to all of its officials, especially the newer ones likely to do sub-varsity games.      

Know and enforce the rules regarding safe equipment

It’s the long anticipated match between two powerhouse soccer programs in the state final. The all-state star for one team had her arm dinged up and is wearing a cast or split that may or may not have been properly covered. No matter, because the referee elects not to check, as he doesn’t want to insult the coach by implying that she would send a player out with an illegal or dangerous piece of equipment. Besides, he isn’t anxious to start the biggest match of the season and delay the telecast by telling the coach her star can’t play. Unfortunately, the referee’s attempt to finesse the issue runs into trouble when the star collides with the opposing team’s MVP and breaks her arm. The MVP misses her traveling team season and loses a probable scholarship. Mom and dad want to know what the association did to make sure its officials understand their obligation to enforce the rules at every game.

Inspect and monitor the playing court or field for safety and rules compliance

With time running out in the half, the marching band is crowding the sideline, waiting for its chance to take the field. They are 30 yards from the line of scrimmage, so no one thinks much about it until a defensive back and receiver fight over a long pass outside the hash marks and go sprawling into the clarinet section, leaving some severely wounded woodwinds. The band boosters, along with a number of other folks, are going to want to know if the association told its officials to keep the sidelines clear at all times.

Know and stay in your lane

Instead of going to game management for help, an official directly confronts an obnoxious fan and orders him to be quiet or leave. The confrontation gets physical and in the process a bystanding fan gets injured. His lawyer wants to know why the association didn’t train its officials to let event staff or security deal with the unruly fan.

Be in the right place,  looking for and at the right thing

You might not think mechanics is a high legal risk area for training, but it can be. Consider a trail official who focuses his attention narrowly on the basketball as it is dribbled in back court nearing the division line and allows two players that were lagging behind to drift out of his field of vision. A shoving match goes unnoticed and suddenly explodes into a sucker punch, which none of the officials see. With proper mechanics, one of the officials would have seen the shoving and could have broken up the brewing storm. Because proper mechanics were not used, a player is undergoing surgery for a fractured skull. The insurance company’s lawyer is going to want to know what the association did to train that crew to make sure they had all 10 players covered.

To be fair, it’s very unusual for an association to be sued for the acts of one of its officials. But if it happens, it’s not likely to be over a failure to adequately train its officials in the complexity of the jump stop or batting out of order rules. It’s going to be over something related to player safety in terms of equipment, the playing environment, or controlling the game. Except for game control, it’s the stuff we often gloss over in meetings, because it rarely comes up in a game. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, and associations need to make sure their members know safety always comes first and ignoring rules about safety puts both the official and association at legal risk.   

This article is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice.


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