Saturday, February 19, 2005

Governmental Immunity for Injury Resulting from an Athletic Contest is Limited

In the recent case of GREEN v.KONAWA INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, 2005 OK CIV APP 10 the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals ("COCA") has limited the interpretation previously given to 51 O.S. § 155.
On May 11, 2001, Raymond Green, a fourth grader at the Konawa Elementary School, ("School") was a participant in the elementary school track meet at the track/football field facility of Konawa Schools. After taking his turn, he and three other students were directed by a supervising teacher to go to a "stand" outside the track area and wait for the event to be completed. Raymond and the others went to the stand and climbed to the top level. One of the students, who weighed perhaps two hundred pounds, leaned over the top rear edge of the stand, causing it to topple backwards. Raymond was injured in the ensuing fall.
Raymond's father, Dennis Green, filed a lawsuit against the School. He claimed his son's injuries were caused by the negligence of School in failing to secure the stand and/or to properly supervise the children.
School filed a motion for summary judgment based upon an exemption from liability for a loss or claim resulting from "[p]articipation in or practice for any interscholastic or other athletic contest sponsored or conducted by or on the property of the state or a political subdivision" provided in 51 O.S. § 155(20).
Based upon the intpretation given to this statute in the following three cases, the trial court granted the School's Motion for Summary Judgment.
In Curtis v. Board of Education of Sayre Public Schools, 1995 OK 119, 914 P.2d 656, the injured party in that case was a 12-year-old boy who was participating in a softball game during a physical education class. The Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the exemption barred the action, because, although the law had originally only applied to injuries sustained in interscholastic contests, the legislature had amended the provision to also apply to "other athletic contest[s]." Id. at ¶ 9, 914 P.2d at 659.
In Evans v. Oaks Mission Public School, 1997 OK 97, 945 P.2d 492 the injured party was a high school student who injured his shoulder in a wrestling match during a physical education class. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that Section 155(20) barred the action to recover for the child's injury, because it was unrefuted "(1) that the injury . . . occurred while the student was participating in a wrestling match, an athletic contest, during his physical education class, and (2) that the injury occurred on school property." Id. at ¶ 9, 945 P.2d at 494.
Finally, in Hull v. Wellston Independent School District, 2002 OK CIV APP 46, 46 P.3d 180, a student at Wellston High School, suffered an intra-cerebral hemorrhage, a broken collar bone, and a punctured lung while participating in a practice football game between Wellston and Bethel High School. As a result of his injuries, he became permanently disabled. The COCA held that Section 155(20) barred the action because the student "was participating in a practice athletic contest at the time he was injured, and the contest was sponsored and conducted by School District." Id. at ¶ 13, 46 P.3d at 183.
However, upon a de novo review of the record, the COCA held that unlike the three cases described above, in which the child was clearly participating in an athletic contest on school property, "while there is no question the injury to Raymond was sustained on school property, there is a substantial question whether Raymond was participating in or practicing for an interscholastic or other athletic contest." The court noted that the undisputed material facts established that Raymond had ended his direct participation in the event and, at the direction of a school employee, had gone to the stand to wait for the other children to finish the competition.


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