A member of the Suffolk University softball team who claimed a teammate - who had been her best friend - was reckless by hitting her in the head during batting practice had her case dismissed today by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, which said that while the concussion she suffered and the stitches she needed were unfortunate, the teammate did nothing legally reckless.
The court added that a similar finding applied to Suffolk University, which Brooke Brandt also sued, because, at worst, the team coach was "negligent" in the way players hitting off a tee and other players might be near each other, and simple negligence is not a paying offense for incidents at sporting events in Massachusetts.
At issue was what happened at an indoor Suffolk training facility on March 7, 2014, when Brandt and teammates were practicing various skills. The gym was set up in a series of "stations" for different skills, and Brandt was going from one station to another while her teammate was hitting balls off a tee.
After the teammate hit the ball off the tee, the teammate's swing hit the plaintiff in the back of the head. As a result, the plaintiff suffered a concussion and required four stitches at a hospital. She was released from the emergency department the same evening. Because the plaintiff and the teammate were best friends, the teammate stayed with the plaintiff in her dormitory room the night of the accident. A few days later, however, it became evident that the plaintiff was suffering long-term effects from the accident, including difficulty reading.
As the case progressed, Brandt at first claimed she yelled "wait" before she passed the tee, but later acknowledged she could not recall if she actually yelled that or just thought it. The teammate, whose vision was partially narrowed by her helmet, testified she'd looked around and did not see or hear Brandt before she swung.
In its ruling, the appeals court upheld a Suffolk Superior Court judge's decision to dismiss the case. They started with the waiver that Brandt, along with other players, signed, absolving Suffolk of any liability for injuries to the extent "permitted by the law of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
That law, the court said, means Brandt would have had to prove the teammate or school had "engaged in reckless conduct or gross negligence."
And that just was not the case, the court said. While "participants in an athletic event owe a duty to other participants to refrain from reckless misconduct," under Massachusetts law, the teammate simply was not reckless, the court ruled.
Contrary to the plaintiff's claim, a jury could not find that the teammate saw the plaintiff before the injury with enough time to prevent the accident. The plaintiff jogged onto the field near where the teammate was preparing to bat. The plaintiff testified at a deposition that the teammate had her back to the entrance,and she wore a batting helmet that limited her peripheral vision. Although the players were supposed to look around before swinging, the plaintiff did not remember whether the teammate looked around. The plaintiff's failure of memory in this regard does not directly contradict the teammate's affirmative recollection that she looked around her before she swung the bat. ... But even were we to assume that there was a sufficient factual dispute over whether the teammate looked before she swung, and that the plaintiff was "capable of being seen from at least the time she was passing by the chain link gate until she was hit" (as the plaintiff's expert opined), there is no rational view of the evidence that the teammate in fact saw the plaintiff before the teammate swung the bat with enough time to prevent the accident. Accordingly, this scenario, as a matter of law, did not rise to the level of recklessness.
The same rationale applies to the team's coach.
The plaintiff's expert stated that the positioning of the tee station near the entrance enhanced the risk of serious danger for the players when there were safer alternative locations for the drill. The head coach gave the players approximately five minutes to transition.The head coach had no reason to believe that these trained collegiate athletes would enter the field while players were swinging their bats at the tee station. Based on the collegiate athletes' knowledge and experience, the head coach's assertedly inadequate planning makes out, at worst,only ordinary negligence.