A potentially far-reaching lawsuit demanding expensive steps to limit the harm from concussions among high school and junior high athletes cleared a significant legal hurdle Tuesday.
A three-judge panel of the state Commonwealth Court on Tuesday rejected an attempt by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, or PIAA, to have the suit against it tossed out.
The association, whose members include all 500 public school systems in Pennsylvania and 200 private schools, argued unsuccessfully that the association was protected from liability because youngsters face an “inherent risk” when taking part in sports.
But in his unanimous opinion, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. said the suit raised important questions about how coaches and others responded to injured players. The appeals court upheld an earlier ruling by a judge in Lawrence County that cleared the way for plaintiffs’ lawyers to gather further evidence.
The lawsuit, brought by a Texas personal-injury firm, was filed on behalf of three teenage students from towns outside Pittsburgh. Two boys suffered concussions while playing football and a girl while diving to catch a softball. Their lawyers hope to win judicial approval to expand the suit to a class-action on behalf of all similarly injured students.
The nonprofit PIAA promulgates rules for high school and junior high teams across Pennsylvania, affecting some 325,000 athletes and 13,000 referees, umpires, and other officials. Its policies regarding concussions are “insufficient and ineffective” to protect younger athletes, the lawsuit claims.
Awareness nationwide has grown dramatically over the last decade about the risk of brain damage from sports, particularly in professional football. But concerns have spread to other contact sports at the college, high school, and even elementary school levels.
In the Pennsylvania suit — the only one of its kind in the nation to challenge a statewide system — the plaintiffs allege that both of the boys had to drop out of high school for months afterward.
Jonathan Hites sustained a “brutal blow” during a 2014 practice, but was told to keep playing — until he vomited on the field and then lost consciousness sitting on the bench, according to the lawsuit.
Freshman Domenic Teolis sustained “multiple severe hits” during a 2012 practice and more head trauma during a game the following day, according to the suit. Several years later, Teolis still suffered from headaches and sensitivity to noise.
The softball player, Kaela Zinagro, suffered a concussion in 2014 after striking her head on the ground as she tried to make a catch, then became nauseous and dizzy, only to have her concerns dismissed by her coach, according to the suit. That evening, her mother had her taken by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors concluded she had sustained a concussion and whiplash, according to the suit.
Rebecca Bell-Stanton, a lawyer for the students, said Wednesday a major issue was a lack of qualified trainers at practices — which she described as chaotic, with players of differing abilities crowding a field. This was in marked contrast to games, she said, when only the best players take the field and are watched from the sidelines by medical personnel.
If the suit prevails, Bell-Stanton said, her hope is that families with injured children would receive money for any medical expenses and that a fund could be created to pay for additional trainers.
Melissa N. Mertz, PIAA’s associate executive director, said the issue should be resolved by coaches and parents. “We really think the best decision-makers are the people who see this day to day to day, not an association based in Mechanicsville,” she said.