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SCIOTTO v. MARPLE NEWTON SCHOOL DIST.

September 23, 1999

JOHN SCIOTTO AND CATHERINE P. SCIOTTO ON BEHALF OF LOUIS SCIOTTO, A MINOR, AS HIS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MARPLE NEWTOWN SCHOOL DISTRICT, JAMES SMITH, STU NATHANS, AND GREG FENDLER, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lowell A. Reed, Jr., Senior District Judge.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court are the respective motions of defendants Marple Newtown School District ("the school district") (Document No. 76), James Smith ("Smith") (Document No. 66), Stu Nathans ("Nathans") (Document No. 77) (collectively, "the school defendants"), and Greg Fendler ("Fendler") (Document No. 74) for summary judgment on the claims of plaintiff Louis Sciotto, by and through his parents and natural guardians, John Sciotto and Catherine P. Sciotto. Based on the following reasons, the motions will be considered in an omnibus fashion and will denied.

I. BACKGROUND

The following facts are based on the evidence presented to the Court in support of defendants' motions for summary judgment and plaintiffs' response (which consist primarily of depositions taken of defendants, plaintiff, and witnesses). All inferences have been taken in favor of plaintiffs, the non-moving parties.

On January 10, 1997, Greg Fendler, an alumnus of Marple Newtown High School and former member of the high school wrestling team, attended a Marple Newtown High School wrestling practice at the invitation of head coach Stu Nathans. (Smith's Exh. D, Fendler Deposition, at 41-42). Fendler's attendance was in keeping with a "longstanding tradition" at Marple Newtown High School in which alumni members of the wrestling team returned to participate in wrestling practices following their graduations. (Smith's Exhibit F, Smith Deposition, at 19-20; Exhibit G, Nathans Deposition, at 51-52). Nathans, Smith, and members of the school district's Board of School Directors were aware of this tradition. (Id.; Smith's Exhibit H, J. Leon Deposition, at 10; Plaintiff's Exhibit B, Price Deposition, at 29). The practice has since been formally discontinued by the school district. (Smith's Exhibit H, J. Leon Deposition, at 74-76).

At the beginning of the January 10 wrestling practice, Nathans introduced Fendler to the wrestling team, correctly informing the team that after graduating from high school, Fendler had gone on to become a member of the Division-I wrestling team at Pennsylvania State University at State College, Pennsylvania.*fn1 At the time he attended the high school's wrestling practice, Fendler was 22 years old and weighed approximately 145-150 pounds. (Smith's Exh. D, Fendler Deposition, at 37). During the practice, Fendler demonstrated moves, instructed wrestlers, and engaged in "live wrestling"*fn2 with members of the team. (Smith's Exh. D, Fendler Deposition, at 52-62).

One of the team members Fendler "live wrestled" was Louis Sciotto, a 16-year-old sophomore then weighing 110 pounds. (Smith's Exh. E, Sciotto Deposition, at 17). During the contest, Fendler executed a legal wrestling move called a "half-nelson." (Smith's Exh. D, Fendler Deposition, at 72). As he was "running the half" (Id. at 73), Fendler "heard a pop." (Id. at 82). Wrestling ceased, and Louis Sciotto said, "I can't feel my legs." (Id.). It was reliably determined that Sciotto had thereby sustained an injury to his spinal cord that has rendered him a quadriplegic. (Plaintiff's Exhibit F, Letter from Christopher Formal, M.D.). His arms, legs, and diaphragm are permanently paralyzed, and he now breathes with the assistance of a ventilator. (Id.)

Plaintiffs filed a complaint against the school defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of Louis Sciotto's right to bodily integrity under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and against Greg Fendler for assault and battery and negligence under Pennsylvania state law. On February 9, 1999, this court denied the motion of the school district, Nathans, and Smith to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Sciotto v. Marple Newtown Sch. Dist., No. 98-2768, 1999 WL 79136 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 9, 1999).

The school defendants now move for summary judgment on the grounds that plaintiffs have failed to present sufficient evidence upon which jury could find that the elements of the "state-created danger" theory of liability under § 1983 are met, and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Furthermore, the school district argues that plaintiffs have not established municipal liability, and Nathans and Smith assert a defense of qualified immunity. Defendant Fendler asserts that the plaintiffs have failed to present sufficient evidence that a reasonable jury could find he possessed the requisite intent to prove he committed assault and battery, and claims immunity as an employee under Pennsylvania's Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8501, et seq.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law," then a motion for summary judgment must be granted. The proper inquiry on a motion for summary judgment is "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 251-52, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

The moving party "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of `the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The nonmoving party must then "go beyond the pleadings and by its own affidavits, or by `depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file' designate `specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, the Court must view the underlying facts and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the non-moving party. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158-59, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970).

III. ANALYSIS

A. Section 1983 Claims

The school defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment both on the facts of the case and as a matter of law. They argue that (1) that the "state-created danger" theory under which Louis Sciotto asserts a constitutional violation is not viable, Memorandum of Law of Defendant Marple Newtown School District in Support of Its Motion for Summary Judgment, at 18-19 (filed April 30, 1999) (hereinafter School District's Memo); and (2) that the evidence produced by the plaintiffs fails to satisfy the elements of that theory, Brief of Defendant Stuart Nathans in Support of His Motion for Summary Judgment, at 21-29 (filed April 30, 1999) (hereinafter Nathans' Brief).*fn3 The school district further argues that plaintiffs have not established municipal liability under § 1983, see School District's Memo, at 26, and Nathans and Smith assert a defense of qualified immunity, see Nathans' Brief, at 29; Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendant James Smith's Motion for Summary Judgment (filed April 12, 1999) (hereinafter Smith's Memo), at 17.

1. "State-Created Danger" Theory*fn4

Plaintiffs contend that the "state-created danger" theory of liability applies. See Johnson v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 38 F.3d 198, 201 (5th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1017, 115 S.Ct. 1361, 131 L.Ed.2d 218 (1995). ("When state actors knowingly place a person in danger, the due process clause of the constitution has been held to render them accountable for the foreseeable injuries that result from their conduct whether or not the victim was in formal state custody."). See also Wood v. Ostrander, 879 F.2d 583 (9th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 938, 111 S.Ct. 341, 112 L.Ed.2d 305 (1990); Cornelius v. Town of Highland Lake, 880 F.2d 348 (11th Cir. 1989). As discussed in an earlier ruling by this Court on defendants' motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has adopted the "state-created danger" theory as a "viable mechanism for establishing a constitutional claim" under § 1983. See Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1211 (1996). See also Sciotto v. Marple Newtown Sch. Dist., No. 98-2768, 1999 WL 79136, at *5 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 9, 1999).*fn5 The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has not overturned its holding in Kneipp and the Supreme Court has not ruled on "state-created danger" since this Court ruled on the motion to dismiss, and thus there is no need to revisit the viability of the "state-created danger" theory here.*fn6

I will first analyze the plaintiffs' evidence in support of its claim that the state actors' (in this case, Nathans and Smith) conduct in this case meets the elements of the "state-created danger" test set forth in Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1152 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 858, 116 S.Ct. 165, 133 L.Ed.2d 107 (1995).

2. Individual Liability

The school defendants contend there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the conduct of Nathans and Smith satisfies the four prongs of the "state-created danger" theory test set forth in Mark. 51 F.3d at 1152. Based on the evidence now before the Court, I conclude that a reasonable jury could find that the elements of a constitutional claim under the "state-created danger" theory are met.

The first element of the "state-created danger" theory requires that "the harm caused was foreseeable and fairly direct." See Mark, 51 F.3d at 1152. Plaintiffs assert that the invitation of older, heavier, more experienced alumni wrestlers to wrestling practice at Marple Newtown High School and allowing them to "live wrestle" team members created a foreseeable, fairly directly risk of harm to wrestlers like Louis Sciotto. The school defendants argue that because Louis Sciotto maintained complete freedom over his actions, the harm he suffered was not foreseeable, and that the causal link between the tradition of inviting alumni wrestlers to practice and the injury to Louis Sciotto is too attenuated.

Plaintiffs have produced evidence supporting the foreseeability of the injury to Louis Sciotto. Most directly on point, plaintiffs produced the statement of a wrestling expert, Andrew M. Matter, who concludes that inviting older, heavier, more experienced alumni wrestlers to practice and allowing them to "live wrestle" younger, lighter, less experienced high school wrestlers was "an accident waiting to happen." (Plaintiffs' Response to Defendant James Smith's Motion for Summary Judgment (filed May 21, 1999) (hereinafter Plaintiff's Response to Smith), Exhibit H, Statement of Andrew B. Matter).

It is not disputed that Nathans and Smith were aware of the existence and promotion of longstanding tradition of inviting older, heavier, more experienced alumni to participate in wrestling practices. (Smith's Exhibit G, Nathans Deposition, at 50; Exhibit F, Smith Deposition, at 16). Smith had personally observed alumni wrestlers participating in practice on approximately six occasions prior to the injury to Louis Sciotto, and knew that lighter wrestlers were allowed to "live wrestle" with heavier wrestlers. (Smith's Exhibit F, Smith Deposition, at 16-17). Nathans openly promoted the tradition each year at the wrestling banquet, (Smith's Exhibit G, Nathans Deposition, at 50), and he personally invited Fendler to attend wrestling practice pursuant to that tradition. (Smith's Exhibit D, Fendler Deposition, at 39). In addition, Nathans was aware of a prior injury suffered by a Marple Newtown High School team member while "live wrestling" with an alumnus. (Smith's Exhibit G, Nathans Deposition, at 57-58). Furthermore, there is evidence of a subsequent injury under similar circumstances, underscoring the danger of allowing alumni to wrestle high school wrestlers. (Smith's Exhibit H, J. Leon Deposition, at 63-64).

I conclude that a reasonable jury could find — on the basis of expert observations on the dangerousness of the tradition of inviting alumni to wrestling practices, a prior injury under similar circumstances, parental complaints about the safety of the practice, and relevant rules governing high school athletics — that inviting older, heavier, more experienced alumni wrestlers to practice with the Marple Newtown High School wrestling squad and thus allowing Fendler to "live wrestle" with younger, lighter, less experienced members of the high school team, including Louis Sciotto, created a foreseeable risk of injury, and that a reasonable wrestling coach and athletic director knowing of such a practice, could have foreseen an injury to such a wrestler as Louis Sciotto.*fn7 Furthermore, a reasonable trier of fact could find that Nathans' invitation to Fendler and supervision of the live wrestling period, and Smith's condonation of the participation of alumni wrestlers "fairly directly" caused the injury to Louis Sciotto*fn8, because but for the invitation and the accepted tradition of allowing live wrestling between alumni and high school wrestlers, Fendler would not have been at practice and would not have wrestled Louis Sciotto. See Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 910 (3d Cir. 1997).*fn9

The third element plaintiff must show is that "there existed some relationship between the state and the plaintiff." Kneipp, 95 F.3d at 1208. A relationship sufficient to satisfy this element can be found in cases where the state acts to make "a discrete plaintiff vulnerable to a foreseeable injury," Mark, 51 F.3d at 1153, or the plaintiff belongs to an identifiable and discrete class of persons subject to the harm. See Morse, 132 F.3d at 913-14. Plaintiffs have presented evidence that Louis Sciotto, as a member of the high school wrestling team at Marple Newtown High School, was a member of a class made vulnerable to a wrestling injury by the policy maintained and condoned by Nathans and Smith. The statement of plaintiffs' wrestling expert supports this contention (Plaintiffs' Exhibit H, Statement of Andrew B. Matter), as do the limitations on alumni participation in wresting and wrestling outside one's weight class contained in the by-laws of the PIAA and the Wrestling Rule Book. See Plaintiffs' Response to Smith, at 4-7. I conclude that a reasonable jury could find from this evidence that Louis Sciotto was a discrete, foreseeable victim of the custom maintained and condoned by both Nathans and Smith.

The fourth prong is satisfied when "the state actors used their authority to create an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed for the third party's crime to occur." Mark, 51 F.3d at 1152. The relevant conduct by the state actor may be either an affirmative act or an omission. See Morse, 132 F.3d at 915.

Plaintiffs allege that by creating, maintaining, and condoning a custom of inviting older, heavier, more experienced alumni wrestlers to practice, and by inviting Fendler to practice and allowing him to wrestle team members, the school defendants created an opportunity for Fendler to harm Louis Sciotto. The evidence shows that Nathans used his authority to invite numerous alumni to participate in practice, and that he extended a personal invitation to Fendler to participate in practice. (Smith's Exh. G, Nathans Deposition, at 50; Exh. D, Fendler Deposition, at 41-42). Smith was well aware of this practice, having attended wrestling banquets at which graduating seniors were invited to return to wrestling practice after graduation and having personally observed wrestling practices at which he knew alumni wrestlers were present. (Smith's Exhibit F, Smith Deposition, at 17, 28). Smith allowed this tradition to continue, despite the fact that he was told by the superintendent, John Wingerter, to cease allowing alumni to practice with the wrestling squad for safety reasons. (Plaintiffs' Exhibit B, Patricia Price Deposition, at 50, 52).

A reasonable jury could conclude that Smith and Nathans, by maintaining a tradition of inviting older, heavier, more experienced alumni to participate in wrestling practices, "used their authority to create an opportunity" for Fendler to injury Louis Sciotto that would not have otherwise existed. But for the tradition and Nathans' invitation to Fendler pursuant to that tradition, Fendler would not have been present at practice, and would not have live wrestled Louis Sciotto on January 10, 1997. On the basis of this evidence, I conclude that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the school defendants used their authority to create an opportunity for the events to occur which caused the injury suffered by Louis Sciotto.

In light of the foregoing analysis, I conclude that plaintiffs have produced sufficient evidence on the basis of which a reasonable trier of fact could find that the conduct of Nathans and Smith satisfies the elements of the "state-created danger" theory, caused the injury complained of, and thereby violated ...


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