In Elias v. Davis & Edwards, Elias, a 16-year-old high school student in the North Kansas City Missouri School District played varsity football. Edwards and Davis were coaches. In October, 2010, the two coaches decided to have a full-grown adult dress out in full football gear including helmet and padding to engage in a full contact live scrimmage with the teenaged members of the high school football team.

Elias was positioned as a middle linebacker and Davis positioned as a running back. During the play, Davis received the hand-off from the quarterback and ran through the defensive line into Elias’ zone where Elias was the next line of defense to attempt to tackle Davis. In attempting to tackle Davis, Elias broke his ankle following a bodily collision between Elias and Davis.

Elias sued the two coaches, alleging negligence and assault and battery. The coaches filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that Plaintiffs claim was barred based on (1) official immunity and assumption of risk and (2) that Elias consented to the contact with Davis, thereby barring the assault and battery claim. The trial court granted summary judgment to both Defendants and Elias appealed.

Elias argued that there were genuine disputes as to the existence of facts necessary to support the defenses of official immunity and assumption of risk. The Court discussed the official immunity doctrine as it relates to public officials and noted that there is a distinction between claims arising from liability for alleged acts of ordinary negligence committed during the course of the performance of discretionary acts as opposed to ministerial acts.

The appellate court elaborated that discretionary acts require the exercise of reason in adapting the means to an end and discretion in determining how or whether an act should be done or a course pursued. By contrast, a ministerial function is one of a clerical nature that a public official is required to perform, given a certain set of facts, in a prescribed manner, and in obedience to the mandate of legal authority without regard to an individual’s own opinion concerning the propriety of the act to be performed.

The Court noted that whether an act is discretionary or ministerial is a determination made on a case by case basis considering (1) the nature of the public employee’s duties; (2) the extent to which the act involves policy making or exercise of professional judgment; and (3) the consequences of not applying official immunity. The Court found that Coach Davis’ physical participation in the scrimmage during practice was not something that could be determined to be outside the course of his official duties as a football coach, since scrimmage is a common tool used by coaches to perform training and develop good game strategy.

While it may be a good idea for the school district to have a rule dictating the method and manner in which an adult high school football coach may physically participate with teenaged players in a practice, the record on appeal did not contain any such rule. Similarly, while it may have been a good idea for the Missouri State High School Athletic Association (MSHSAA) to have a regulation relating to authorized physical participation between football coaches and players in a practice environment, the record was devoid of any such regulation or rule.

The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, ruled that the two coaches were performing a discretionary act when they supervised and conducted the football practice in the way they did and that therefore the exercise of discretion was protected by the doctrine of official immunity as relates to the negligence claim brought by the Plaintiff.

As to the assault and battery claim, those are two distinct causes of action though they are oft times pled conjunctively. Consent is an affirmative defense to a battery action. Missouri case law holds that in amateur contact sports cases, doctrines of assumption of risk and consent must be considered and must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. The Court determined that Plaintiff voluntarily consented to the risks that reasonably adhere to football, including physical contact and collisions with other players.

The Court noted that the record on appeal lacked any evidence of Coach Davis’ skill level or football experience. Further, the Court noted that when a football coach who is in charge of the team shouts a command to the teenagers on his team that they will participate in trying to tackle the adult coach, it may reasonably be debatable whether a teenage student on the practice squad had “consented” to such activity.

Therefore, the appellate court granted Plaintiff-Appellant’s relief on appeal as to the claims relating to assault and battery, reversing summary judgment as to the assault and battery claims and reversing and remanding that portion of the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

If you have any questions regarding this case or any other insurance law issues, please contact one of our Insurance Law attorneys at 816.931.2700.

By Kent M. Bevan of Dysart Taylor Cotter McMonigle & Montemore