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Appellate Division Affirms Lower Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment to Teacher, School, and School Board In Personal Injury/Recreational Sports Case

July 08, 2019

ROBERT B. SPAWN reports on a recent published decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

In a recent New Jersey case, a Plaintiff, a student at a Defendant-Middle School in Union County (the “School”), was injured while playing in a student-teacher fundraising basketball game.

 

Approximately fifteen teachers and seventeen students participated in the June 2013 game, which was officiated by a referee.  There were also five other teachers who did not play in the game, but attended to provide supervision.  During the game, Plaintiff went up for a rebound and made contact with a Defendant-Teacher (the “Teacher”) playing for the opposing team.  As a result of the contact, Plaintiff landed awkwardly, fell, and sustained injuries to her knee.

 

In October 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint against the Teacher, the School, and the School’s Board of Education (the “School Board”) (collectively, “Defendants”) in connection with her knee injuries.  In her complaint, Plaintiff asserted claims for negligence and intentional conduct.  After discovery was complete, Defendants moved for summary judgment.

 

On August 23, 2017, the trial court issued a written opinion granting summary judgment to Defendants.  The court first determined that Plaintiff had failed to present evidence that Defendants had engaged in negligent supervision because the game was officiated by a referee and there were approximately five teachers who attended the game specifically for supervisory purposes.  The court also reasoned that Plaintiff’s injury, which occurred when she and the Teacher jumped for a rebound during the course of the game, could not have been prevented by any further supervision. 

 

Importantly, the trial court also held that a participant in a recreational sports activity cannot assert a claim of negligence against a co-participant who causes her injury.  Indeed, in order to sustain a personal injury claim resulting from a recreational sports activity, a plaintiff must show that the co-participant acted recklessly or intentionally.  Again, as the Teacher and Plaintiff were simply going up for a rebound during the course of a game, the court found that there were no facts supporting the conclusion that the Teacher acted recklessly or intentionally.

 

On appeal, Plaintiff first contended that the Teacher, the School, and the School Board all owed her a supervisory duty of care, which they breached.  Although the Appellate Division acknowledged that school officials have a duty to supervise children in their care (and are accountable for injuries resulting from failure to discharge that duty), it found, in accordance with the trial court’s opinion, that there was no showing that Plaintiff’s injury was caused by a lack of supervision.  To be sure, given the presence of the referee and the five additional teachers who did not play in the game, there was clearly adequate supervision, and, in any event, Plaintiff’s injury was the result of routine contact with another player that regularly occurs as part of a basketball game. 

 

Plaintiff also argued on appeal that there was a material fact issue as to whether the Teacher acted recklessly during the course of the game, and, accordingly, that summary judgment was improper.  In analyzing this argument, the Appellate Division explained that, in order for Plaintiff to prevail on her claim, she would have to demonstrate that the Teacher was aware or at the very least should have been aware of the possibility that his actions would cause excessively harmful conduct to Plaintiff.  Plaintiff would also have to show that the Teacher’s actions were outside the scope of the “routine rough-and tumble of sports that should occur freely on [basketball courts][.]”  As Plaintiff did not make any showing that the Teacher, in merely jumping up for a rebound, recklessly disregarded a risk that he would cause excessively harmful conduct to Plaintiff, the Appellate Division rejected Plaintiff’s contention, and found that there was no dispute of material facts.  The Appellate Division further noted that courts should generally not second-guess conduct that occurs during the course of a recreational sports game unless such conduct is particularly egregious.  As such, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Defendants.

 

Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.