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Youth Sports Liability

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By: Brian C. Dever, Esq.

A man was hired as the head coach of his son’s youth basketball team. The Defendants are the members of the board that oversees the hiring of the town’s basketball coaches for the youth basketball program. Plaintiff was fired from his job because parents of children on other teams complained to the board about the Plaintiff’s coaching style and another parent volunteered to coach. The Plaintiff was given the opportunity to inform the parents of the children on the team that he was stepping down due to work schedule demands. He declined because that was not true. The parents repeatedly asked the board for an explanation as to why the coach was fired, fearing that he may be a danger to their children. The board repeatedly refused to respond with any substantive facts. Eventually the community took the silence of the board to be an admission that the coach was in fact dangerous, falsely labeling him as a child molester. His son was taunted at school. Plaintiff sued the board alleging gross negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recently ruled in this case, that gross negligence requires indifference to a present legal duty, and the Plaintiff had not shown any case that recognizes an independent duty arising out of even remotely similar facts. Therefore, the gross negligence claim has been dismissed for failure to state a claim. Intentional infliction of emotional distress requires an intentional act that is either intended to inflict emotional distress or the actor knew or should have know would be likely to inflict emotional distress, that the act be extreme and outrageous, and that it result in physical manifestations of injury. The jury is entitled to draw reasonable inferences form the totality of the circumstance when determining whether conduct was extreme and outrageous. The Court ruled that the Plaintiff brought forth enough facts to allow a jury to find that, within the circumstances, the conduct was extreme and outrageous and the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was allowed to proceed. Finally, defamation requires that, for a libel claim, the Defendant publish a written statement of and concerning the Plaintiff that was both defamatory and false, and caused economic loss or is actionable without proof of economic loss. Words not inherently disparaging may have that effect if viewed contextually. In a similar claim for defamation, the matter was allowed to proceed even without the wording classifying the Plaintiff in a defamatory light. The silence on the matter, along with the reasonable knowledge of the community’s suspicion of the Plaintiff was enough. A jury may be able to find a derogatory meaning in the silence, and thus the defamation was allowed to proceed.