Sixteen-year old Phoenix football player Ridge Barden died from a massive subdural hematoma, or in laymen’s terms, lots of blood on the brain. As the father of a 15-year old boy, the horror and grief of the Barden family is tangible to me. My deepest sympathies go out to his entire family, including his football family.
The damage was caused by helmet-to-helmet contact during a football game between Phoenix and Homer High School in Homer last Friday. The injury, and death, appears to have resulted from a single impact during the game.
This tragic death comes at a time when brain injuries and concussions suffered in youth sports, especially football, are under scrutiny. A lot of people are asking, “are we doing enough to protect our young athletes’ heads”? Evidence is emerging to suggest that the helmets players use may not be enough to protect them from serious injuries, despite what some helmet manufacturers want you to believe. (I blogged last January about false claims made by helmet manufacturers that their latest models have reduced the risk of concussions).
Most high schools send their football helmets out to be reconditioned every year, and they have to pass a safety inspection before the season begins.
Is a lawsuit possible in a case like Ridge Barden’s? Possible targets of a lawsuit would be: The high school; the helmet manufacturer and the helmet reconditioner.
Assuming the helmet was not defective, in my opinion as a New York personal injury lawyer, no one can, nor should, be sued (please, no one take this as legal advice — all cases are unique and all facts must be examined before a binding legal opinion can be rendered). A lawsuit on these facts would generally be barred by a legal doctrine known as “primary assumption of the risk”. This rule, as articulated repeatedly by New York courts, provides that “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant is deemed to have consented to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation”.
Football players, and their parents, know, or should know, that there is a risk, however slight, that they may be seriously injured or die in a sport, such as football, that involves forceful head-on-head contact, albeit with helmet protection. They knowingly, and willingly, accept this risk. The sport has so many benefits — character building, conditioning, learning to work as part of a team — that we are willing to accept the risks.
And we should be thankful for this assumption of the risk rule. But for this rule of law, there would be no high school football at all — lawsuits would shut down the whole sport.
Don’t get me wrong — lawsuits are warranted in some sporting accident cases. As I have explained in previous blog posts, not all sporting injuries are caused by the inherent and assumed risks of the sport (see my prior posts, “What Is A Good New York Sports Injury Case?” and “Assumption Of Risk Doctrine Won’t Protect Ski Resort For Falling Chairlifts“). But where the injuries flow directly from one of the know, inherent, risk of the game, all we can, and should, do is grieve the loss of a beautiful young athlete, son, brother, friend and teammate.
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