Schools throughout Pennsylvania are struggling with how to handle the new schoolyear amidst the ongoing pandemic. Add to that concerns about whether student-athletes should play fall sports. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) must weigh many factors in making a decision about fall sports. One of those factors is potential legal liability. In an article with the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, Attorney Tom Waffenschmidt of Waffenschmidt Law Firm warns the PIAA that concerns over Covid-19 related lawsuits are valid and likely.
A difficult decision
The PIAA Board of Directors meets on Friday, August 21st, to decide whether to continue with fall sports. They have a difficult decision, weighing the health risks against the wishes of student-athletes, their parents and their coaches. One of their main sticking points is the problem of legal liability. As Mr. Waffenschmidt points out, the PIAA and the schools could face legal liability if a player, coach or family member ended up contracting Covid-19. He guarantees lawsuits will follow.
No matter how careful people are, Mr. Waffenschmidt states, the virus will spread. We have already seen this happen with professional baseball, despite the many precautions they have taken. The virus can spread to other players and their families very quickly. Although younger people tend to have fewer symptoms than older people, they are not immune to this disease and can spread it to others. Doctors are only now learning about some of the long-term health effects of Covid-19.
The problems with protection from liability
The PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi has requested government assistance with protection from liability if they allow sports this fall. Mr. Waffenschmidt warns that this may be more difficult than it sounds. Immunity would likely require action from the state legislature to pass a law, but even that may not be enough. If someone challenged the law in court, Waffenschmidt says there is a good chance it would not hold up under the constitution.
Another option often used by sports teams and other groups is the liability waiver. Participants sign an agreement not to sue the organization for any injury they suffer by participating in the given activity. Although these waivers could provide PIAA and the schools with some protection, one exception to the waiver is gross negligence. That means one bad decision can open up the organization to liability.
According to Mr. Waffenschmidt, the PIAA simply has no good options while the state is still in the midst of a pandemic. Lawsuits are bound to happen. The risks to players and their families are too high and there is a simple solution to preventing it by simply not playing. That may be the best thing to do to avoid legal liability this fall, as hard as that may be.