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Yatsko v. Berezwick

June 13, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley


Before the court is defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiff's amended complaint (Doc. 25). Having been fully briefed and argued, the case is ripe for disposition.


Plaintiff was formerly a student at Tamaqua Area High School. (Amended Complaint (Doc. 24) (hereinafter "Amended Complt.") at ¶ 4). At the time of the events in question, Defendant Joseph Berezwick was the Head Basketball Coach at the School and an employee of the Defendant School District. (Id. at ¶ 5). Defendant Andrea Edmonds was also a School District employee, as well as Assistant Basketball Coach. (Id. at ¶ 6).

The incident that gave rise to the instant lawsuit began on January 10, 2005. (Id. at ¶ 9). At that time, plaintiff was a starting player on the Tamaqua High basketball team. (Id.). During the second quarter of a game on that date, plaintiff leapt for a rebound. (Id. at ¶ 12). When she landed, the top of her head struck the top of another player's head. (Id.). The force of the collision immediately caused plaintiff visual problems and a painful headache. (Id. at ¶ 13). Because of a lopsided score, plaintiff did not play in the game after she hurt her head. (Id.). At the end of the game, plaintiff told Defendant Edmonds that she had hit her head, had a headache, and was in a great deal of pain. (Id. at ¶ 14). Edmonds then took plaintiff to her mother, who was watching the game, telling her that plaintiff had been "bumped around in the game." (Id. at ¶ 15). Edmonds did not take plaintiff to the trainer during the game because she did not want the trainer to say she could not play. (Id. at ¶ 16).

Following Defendant Edmonds's advice and her own knowledge of head injuries, plaintiff's mother woke plaintiff from her sleep every few hours that night to ensure her safety. (Id. at ¶ 17). Plaintiff attended school the next day, but had a painful headache all day. (Id. at ¶ 18). She could not concentrate, felt nauseated, and told several friends that she had suffered a concussion. (Id. at ¶ 19).

Plaintiff's symptoms continued into the next day, January 12, 2005. (Id. at ¶ 20). Her basketball team had a scheduled game against Pine Grove, Pennsylvania that day. (Id. at ¶ 21). Plaintiff cried on the bus to the game, telling teammates and others that she had suffered a concussion and felt terrible. (Id. at ¶ 22). During warmups for the game, she had difficulty participating, felt weak, and shook. (Id. at ¶ 23). Defendants Edmonds and Berezwick observed these problems. (Id.). Plaintiff told her coaches that she had suffered a concussion in the previous game. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25). Armed with this information, Defendants Berezwick and Edmonds set up a signal that made plaintiff responsible for telling coaches when she needed to leave the game. (Id. at ¶ 26). The coaches told her she was the team's tallest player and needed to remain in the game. (Id. at ¶ 27). Plaintiff alleges that this encouragement amounted to the "legal and moral equivalent of pressuring, goading and coercing the Plaintiff, a student, to play the game after a serious head injury." (Id. at ¶ 28). Following the district's policy, no trainer was present at the game. (Id. at ¶ 29). Defendant Berezwick asked plaintiff several times during the game if she was okay. (Id. at ¶ 30). At the end of the game, plaintiff's nausea increased and she began to shake and feel unsteady. (Id. at ¶ 31). She collapsed to the ground in the locker room. (Id. at ¶ 32). The Pine Grove trainer gave her a chocolate bar, which she could not chew or swallow. (Id. at ¶ 33). Defendant Berezwick then asked plaintiff if he should call an ambulance for her. (Id. at ¶ 34). Instead, the two coaches help plaintiff board the bus back to school. (Id. at ¶ 35).

On the bus ride home, Defendant Berezwick asked plaintiff if the bus should stop at the hospital. (Id. at ¶ 36). Plaintiff replied that she wanted to see her mother. (Id. at ¶ 37). Defendant Edmonds met plaintiff's mother at a restaurant after the game and informed her that her daughter had collapsed. (Id. at ¶ 38). Plaintiff's mother asked Edmonds why her daughter had played, since she had been under the impression that the prior head injury would prevent that. (Id. at ¶ 39). Edmonds explained that she had spoken with the other coaches, and that plaintiff had expressed a desire to play. (Id. at ¶ 40). Defendant Berezwick then told plaintiff's mother to take her to the hospital. (Id. at ¶ 41). At the hospital, defendant Berezwick told plaintiff's mother that her daughter had wanted to play, and that he "had made the wrong call" in not preventing it. (Id. at ¶ 42).

Plaintiff alleges that the Defendant School District and its coaches are members of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) and bound by the Association's rules and regulations. (Id. at ¶ 43). These rules are laid out in the PIAA Handbook. (Id. at ¶ 44). The PIAA Constitution and By-Laws establish that the Association aims to "'organize, develop, and direct an interscholastic athletic program which will promote, protect, and conserve the health and physical welfare of all participants.'" (Id. at ¶ 45). Those rules require that a school exclude any athlete who has suffered a serious injury from competition until a doctor pronounces her physically fit. (Id. at ¶ 46). The by-laws also declare that, for coaches, "'striving to win at any cost is distinctly unethical.'" (Id. at ¶ 47). When discussing "contact sports," the rules warn of potential "heightened exposure to communicable diseases, illnesses, and injuries" but declare that such risks "can be minimized through proper coaching, training, and supervision." (Id. at ¶ 48). In discussing head injuries, the handbook's section on sports medicine advises coaches not to allow athletes who have suffered concussions to return to play until they have fully recovered from their injuries and a doctor has provided permission. (Id. at ¶¶ 50-51). Plaintiff alleges that though defendants were required to comply with these rules, they failed to do so. (Id. at ¶ 52).

As a result of this improper medical treatment, plaintiff suffered serious brain injuries that caused "potentially permanent health problems." (Id. at ¶ 54). She has been unable to participate in sports, missed several months of high school and dropped out of college. (Id.). Plaintiff's health problems include "serious brain injuries, aggravation of cerebral concussion and permanent sequalae therefrom, blurred vision, loss of balance, headaches and depression." (Id. at ¶ 55). These injuries led to serious medical expenses, and will continue to do so. (Id. at ¶ 56).

On December 28, 2006 plaintiff filed her initial complaint (Doc. 1). Defendants filed a motion to dismiss that complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. (See Doc. 10). After the court heard argument on the matter, on December 4, 2007 we issued an opinion that granted the motion but gave plaintiff leave to amend the complaint. To survive scrutiny, plaintiff would have to file a complaint that alleged that the defendant's behavior shocked the conscience.

Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on December 20, 2007. Two of her causes of action cite 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Count I raises a claim against Edmonds and Berezwick for a violation of plaintiff's substantive and procedural due process rights. Plaintiff contends that she had a liberty interest in bodily injury and freedom from state-created danger, as well as a right not to be harmed. She also contends she had a right to adequate medical treatment. Defendant's failure to provide medical care and encouragement of plaintiff to play in a basketball game constituted deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's health. Count II raises a claim against the school district; plaintiff contends that the school district created a danger to students by allowing them to be supervised by Berezwick and Edmonds in dangerous activities, and by failing to institute and enforce safety standards in interscholastic athletics. Such action amounted to a practice, policy or custom of reckless indifference to plaintiff's rights. Count III raises a negligence claim against all the defendants based on the actions of the coaches. Count IV raises a negligence claim against the school district based on improper hiring and supervision of the coaches.

On January 7, 2008 defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss. The parties filed briefs. The court then held oral argument, ...

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