Showing posts with label consent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label consent. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

No recklessness, no liability, court affirms in case of head injury during softball batting practice

mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
Applying recklessness doctrine in a non-competitive context, the Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday affirmed non-liability for a collegiate softballer and Suffolk University in the case of a player hit in the head by a bat during practice.

Tort and Sport

Personal injury in sport offers fertile ground for exploring tort law, because athletic competition represents a suspension of the social contract.  Ordinarily, everyone in an orderly society knows not to push, tackle, or punch other people.  But in a sport, that can be exactly what you're supposed to do.  So a special, carefully designed standard of conduct, "the rules of the game," supersedes the usual web of unwritten norms, conveniently yielding a laboratory for socio-legal study.

If one fails to recognize the aberrant nature of the sport context, anomalous legal results pertain.  For example, every injury resulting from a collision of players on the football field is accidental, so a potential source of negligence liability.  Alternatively, many such injuries are batteries, because the defendant bore subjective intent to cause offensive contact.  At the same time, the defenses of assumption of risk and consent raise frame-of-reference problems in application.  An athlete generally assumes a risk of injury, a defendant argues, but not necessarily injury specifically in the way that it happened, the plaintiff counters.  The usual tort doctrines just don't work well to solve conflict over sporting injury.

To overcome this problem, courts in many states, including Massachusetts, have employed the tort standard of recklessness in sport cases.  Recklessness focuses on a defendant's indifference to a risk of high probability or magnitude (tests vary).  For its culpability analysis, recklessness hybridizes subjective and objective tests for culpability, thereby balancing the prohibitive prerequisite of defendant's intent with slim proof of carelessness.  The test is not a perfect tool for sporting-injury cases, but it works much better than intent and negligence rules to help courts patrol the outer boundaries of social-normative conduct in an exceptional situation.

j4p4n from openclipart.org
In Borella v. Renfro, in December 2019, the Massachusetts Appeals Court applied the recklessness standard to a case of ice-hockey injury, relying on precedent of the Supreme Judicial Court dating to 1989.  The court explained in Borella:

In a game where the players wear sharpened steel blades on their feet and are garbed in protective gear from head to toe, the playing field is a glossy ice rink, checking not only is allowed but a fundamental aspect of the way the game is played, and the object of the game is to put a puck into a goal (or to prevent the same), the plaintiff, seventeen year old Daniel J. Borella, was cut on the wrist by one of the blades worn by the defendant, Julion Scott Lever, in what Borella acknowledges was a "freak accident" occurring moments after Lever checked Borella hard from behind into the boards and took the puck away.

.... In this case, we apply [the recklessness] standard to the game of ice hockey[,] in which physical contact between players standing on two thin metal blades atop a sheet of ice is not simply an unavoidable by-product of vigorous play, but is a fundamental part of the way the game is played. We hold that where, as here, the record is devoid of evidence from which a jury rationally could conclude that the player's conduct is extreme misconduct outside the range of the ordinary activity inherent in the sport, there is no legal liability under the recklessness standard. For that reason, we affirm summary judgment in favor of Lever.

Dissenting, Justice Peter J. Rubin would have sent arguable questions of fact to the jury.  But he did not disagree, for jury instruction, that recklessness was the correct standard.

Batting Practice

Despite the efficacy of the recklessness standard in sport cases, things get tricky at the margins, especially when injury occurs off field, or outside the narrow context of competitive conflict between players in the course of the game.  The instant case presented such a challenge, as one player was hit in the head by a teammate accidentally, while the teammate was engaged in batting practice.

Should the recklessness analysis pertain to "friendly fire" in practice, too?  Yes, the Appeals Court answered, consistently with precedent in other states.  Recklessness is the appropriate standard for athletic practice.  

In the instant case, the unfortunate accident occurred between friends on the Suffolk University softball team.  The plaintiff-player walked too close to the swinging defendant-player at just the wrong time.  Their testimonies, and that of the supervising coach, might have supported findings for or against fault-based liability in negligence, but no matter.  The defendant's conduct did not rise to the recklessness standard, and the trial court correctly awarded summary judgment to the defense.

The court framed its choice of the recklessness standard as a problem in duty.  Duty in tort law is determined "by reference to existing social values and customs and appropriate social policy," the court quoted precedent.  This point is significant for reasons related to the deeper mechanics of tort law.  Without diving into the problem here, it will suffice to say that the interrelationship of duty and fault standards sometimes matters, especially when a change in the relevant law occurs, whether through common law evolution or legislative enactment.

Co-defendant Suffolk University also won summary judgment.  The players had signed waivers of university liability in negligence, and the evidence failed to support gross negligence or recklessness in the coach's and university's supervision of the softball practice.

Superior Court Decision

In affirming, the Appeals Court opinion described the Superior Court's application of recklessness doctrine as "thoughtful."  That appraisal prompted me to seek a copy of the trial court opinion.

Regrettably, Massachusetts is a jurisdiction that thrives on secrecy in trial court records.  The Superior Court for Suffolk County, which includes the metropolis of Boston, puts dockets online, and the interface looks like the same software used by my home bar jurisdiction of Washington, D.C.  But links to document images, which D.C. has offered for a few years, are not available from the Massachusetts system.  Given the state of technology in the courts and in the country, I can attribute this omission only to willful obscurity.

Graciously, attorney Robert B. Smith (LinkedIn, Twitter), Demoura|Smith LLP, who represented Suffolk University softball head coach Jaclyn Davis, shared with me a copy of the memorandum decision in the Superior Court.  The court wrote:

[Defendant-player] Ball argues that because Brandt's injury occurred while she and Brandt were participating in an athletic event, she may only be liable for conduct that was willful, wanton, or reckless. Ball contends that she is entitled to summary judgment because Brandt has no reasonable expectation of proving her conduct was willful, wanton, or reckless. The court agrees.

"Players, when they engage in sport, agree to undergo some physical contacts which could amount to assault and battery absent the players' consent." Gauvin v. Clark, 404 Mass. 450, 454 (1989). "The courts are wary of imposing wide tort liability on sports participants, lest the law chill the vigor of athletic competition." Id. Therefore, "a participant in an athletic event can be liable to another participant only when his or her actions amount to a willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety of the other participant." Gray v. Giroux, 49 Mass. App. Ct. 436, 438 (2000) [affirming summary judgment for defendant in golf-club-to-head case].

Brandt argues that the present case is distinguishable from those requiring a showing of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct because her injury was not caused by an opponent during a competition. However, the court declines to construe the broad language of the controlling cases in a manner that excludes Brandt's claim from their purview. Members of the same athletic team participating in a team practice are no less "participant[s] in an athletic event" than members of opposing teams during a game. [Cf.] Dugan v. Thayer Academy, [32 Mass. L. Rep. 657] (Mass. Super. Ct. 2015) (willful, wanton, or reckless standard did not apply where alleged negligence occurred before and after, but not during, athletic event [field hockey]). Accordingly, the willful, wanton, or reckless standard of care applies to Brandt's claim against Ball.

The appellate case is Brandt v. Davis, No. 19-P-1189 (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 2, 2020).  Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Wolohojian and Maldonado.  The case below was Brandt v. Davis, No. 2017-00641-B (Mass. Super. Ct. Suffolk County Apr. 16, 2019).  Presiding in the Superior Court was Justice Mark C. Gildea, an alumnus of Suffolk Law.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Battery, IIED in play if medical staff ignore patient's 'stop,' court rules

Medical professionals may be liable for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress for failing to heed a patient's withdrawal of consent, a Massachusetts Appeals Court reversal warned in February.

Brigham and Women's Hospital is a teaching hospital
of Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Photo by trepulu CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (2010).
According to the appellate court opinion, evidence in the case supported the plaintiffs' disputed claim that terminally ill cancer patient Donna Zaleskas begged staff at Brigham and Women's Hospital to stop X-rays of her leg because of her physical discomfort, but that X-ray technicians proceeded anyway.  On behalf of Zaleskas, who succumbed to cancer, survivors are suing the hospital for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, upon the theory that Zaleskas withdrew consent.  The Superior Court awarded summary judgment to the defense, and the Appeals Court reversed and remanded.

Thirty-seven-year-old decedent Zaleskas was a personal injury and product liability attorney in New York and alumna of Boston College Law School.

A finer line than one might expect separates theories of negligence and battery in many medical malpractice cases.  When a medical professional touches or otherwise physically treats a patient without, or beyond the scope of, the patient's consent, the action can simultaneously satisfy the test for intentional battery—defendant intentionally effecting physical contact that is unwanted by the complainant—and negligence—defendant's failure to comport with the standard of care of a reasonable professional under the circumstances.  Consent is an affirmative defense to intentional torts, like assumption of risk is a defense to negligence, but scope of consent often presents a thorny question of controverted fact.  Of course, patients with the benefit of hindsight are ill inclined to suppose that they consented to physical contact that caused harm, so intentional tort claims are often rationally articulable alongside accident claims in medmal lawsuits.

In the interest of doctrinal clarity, courts often, and in some jurisdictions, upon some facts, must, channel cases into a distinct rubric for "medical malpractice" that sits under or alongside the negligence umbrella, regardless of whether the case might be characterized as intent or accident.  That's a modern trend.  Massachusetts is more permissive in preserving conventional claims in intentional torts in medmal when the facts fit the bill.  The difference can be important in different dimensions.  A defendant's insurer might deny coverage, under policy terms, for intentional torts.  At the same time, intentional torts may give a plaintiff access to greater, even punitive, damage awards.

The Appeals Court ruled Zaleskas's claim fit for hearing in the intentional tort framework.  The court wrote plainly, "We now hold that if a patient unambiguously withdraws consent after medical treatment has begun, and if it is medically feasible to discontinue treatment, continued treatment following such a withdrawal may give rise to a medical battery claim."  In the instant case, "a reasonable jury could find that saying stop or words to that effect, in the particular factual context at issue, was sufficient to withdraw consent."

The court ruled furthermore, to the plaintiffs' advantage, "that consent to have one's body touched or positioned for an X-ray is not a matter beyond the common knowledge or experience of a layperson and does not require expert medical testimony."

The case is Zaleskas v. Brigham & Women's Hosp., No. 18-P-1076 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 11, 2020) (Justia). Justice Henry wrote for a unanimous panel with Rubin and Wendlandt, JJ.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Teachable torts: Halloween haunted houses strain hallowed American right to make poor choices

As the sun sets in the U.S. East, I was prepared to let Halloween slide by on the blog, even though so many great tort-related items perennially crop up, and an eagle-eyed 1L Jason Jones sent me an excellent story about the super creepy McKamey Manor (YouTube) haunted house in Summertown, Tennessee (Guardian video coverage four years ago).  Then Professor Christine Corcos (of Media Law Prof Blog, via TortsProf List) alerted me to WaPo coverage of McKamey, and Ronny Chieng incorporated McKamey into his Halloween edition of "Everything is Stupid" on The Daily Show (here for the blog, not the classroom).


The "petition" referenced in the news coverage (linked above, top) refers to a Change.org petition, not a legal action.  Yet.  The case would be useful to consider tort claims, such as the infliction of emotional distress, as well as defenses, such as consent and assumption of risk, vitiation on public policy grounds, and the American ethos of personal responsibility.

Thanks to my TA, here's an even better item, funny without the dark angle, bringing a lawyer into the picture: the first two segments of Nathan For You s1e05.

Happy Hallows' Eve.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Teachable torts, Rugby World Cup edition: When battery exceeds consent in sport

More than once over the years, I've received student-evaluation feedback complaining that my use of sport cases and hypotheticals in 1L Torts is detrimental to students not interested in sport.  Now I explain to the class in advance why we do it.

Torts is about deriving the rule of law from what the enlightenment philosophers termed our "social contract."  The sport field is a brilliant place to test out tort law, because it's a place where the social contract is most unusually suspended.  If your office workmate punches you in front of the copier, you'll consider suing her for battery.  Meanwhile, you'll most likely swallow your wounded pride when she takes you down on the soccer pitch.  Understanding the difference between the two cases is what tort law is all about.

In that vein—and in honor of the Rugby World Cup, with England v. Tonga getting under way as this post goes live—I present for your consideration St. Helens vs. Wigan in the 2014 Super League Grand Final of rugby: also remembered as Lance Hohaia v. Ben Flower.


There is, moreover, fascinating follow-up to this encounter to be found in Guardian coverage in 2015 and in BBC coverage in 2016.  The incident was recently recalled by TV NZ 1's Luke Appleby, who suggested that tort liability might be just the thing to bring rugby sluggers to heel.

HT@ barrister David Casserly, who first brought this dust-up to my attention.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

'False claims of love': Mass. App. speaks from the heart for Valentine's Day

Just in time for Valentine's Day, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals rejected a divorcee's lawsuit for "false claims of love."

The plaintiff's eight claims were aptly characterized by the court as sounding in fraud, battery (i.e., contact upon improperly procured consent), infliction of emotional distress, and unjust enrichment.  All of these claims turned on misleading inducement to marry as a common, operative allegation.

Massachusetts by statute "abolished the common law actions for alienation of affection," "reflect[ing] the Legislature's public policy decision to no longer consider judicial remedy appropriate for what is only 'an ordinary broken heart.'"  Christopher Robinette wrote succinctly about the "heart balm torts"—alienation of affections, criminal conversation, seduction, and breach of promise to marry—in November at Tortsprof Blog.  Reading between the lines of the law, the court explained that legislators meant to preclude any cause of action that would require "'explor[ing] the minds of' consenting partners" (quoting precedent).

This case was not about failure to marry, but about marriage under allegedly false pretenses.  Same difference, the court held, with respect to claims of fraud or misrepresentation: plaintiff's "artful pleadings fail to hide the fact that these claims, based on events that occurred prior to the marriage, are precluded ...."  The same result controlled battery, as the consent analysis plainly would defy the inferred legislative intent.

As to IIED, the plaintiff could not meet the threshold of "extreme and outrageous," neither through allegation of an adulterous affair, even if calculated to inflict emotional injury, nor through failure to disclose "concealment of past sexual or romantic history."  Massachusetts courts at least in theory recognize a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED)--the truly pure case of it is far rarer than recitation of the theory--but found the record "bereft of physical harm manifested by objective symptomatology."  On both points, one must recall Jones v. Clinton, 990 F. Supp. 657 (E.D. Ark. 1998), per the Hon. Susan Weber Wright.  This case also well exemplifies why NIED is not sound doctrine, a point the Supreme Judicial Court might ought revisit one day.

On unjust enrichment and related theories, the court concluded that any unjustness was predicated on the earlier rejected fraud, and otherwise, the plaintiff was in no way of feeble mind.

The court summed up: "[N]ot all human actions in the context of the dissolution of a marriage have an avenue for legal recourse, no matter how much anger, sorrow, or anxiety they cause." Broadened to all affairs of the heart, the conclusion well restates essential tort policy, lest we become the caricature of the litigious society.

The case is Shea v. Cameron, No. 16-P-1479 (Mass. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2018), per Agnes, Sacks, and Lemire, JJ.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The NFL and the Dramatic Arts


Last week, in The Death of Civil Justice, I mentioned Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 435 F. Supp. 352 (D. Colo. 1977), rev’d & remanded, 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979), in which U.S. District Judge Matsch wrestled with the Tenth Circuit over the role of the courts in oversight of on-field sport misconduct (think cousin problem, Deflate-gate).  Hackbart involved a strike on the body of Dale Hackbart (later an advocate for male breast cancer awareness) by opponent Charles "Boobie" Clark (since deceased) in a Bengals-Broncos clash in the early 1970s.  Judge Matsch would have left the matter within regulation by the sport, but the Tenth Circuit thought that the common law of recklessness afforded a backstop in tort to ensure that the rules of civilized society do follow the players onto the field in some fashion, as an Illinois appellate court once put it.

Well just this weekend a similar, yet curiously different, after-the-whistle scenario unfolded in an American football game between Florida Gators (I know you were watching, Prof. Andrew McClurg)
wide receiver Brandon Powell and Tennessee Vols defensive back Rashaan Gaulden.  Sideline cameras were not on them at the time, but aerial footage shows what appears to be Powell throwing a punch at Gaulden and (intentionally?) not connecting, and Gaulden hitting the ground (show?).  The refs took the incident seriously enough that after much deliberation, they ejected Powell. 

CBS commentators were initially harsh on Powell, angry and forlorn as he walked to the locker room just before a commercial break.  But after the break, they had changed their tune and apologized to him, turning their venom on the refs.  One commentator took the opportunity to impugn soccer (really necessary?) with reference to Gaulden's dramatic performance, and another invoked Greg Louganis in an awkward metaphor for "taking a dive."  The commentary itself makes the clip worth watching, and at least at the time of this writing, it's available here: "Flop of the Year."

The case is easier than Hackbart's, as he suffered debilitating injury that contributed to the end of his athletic career.  The problem in Hackbart was one of consent: What exactly does an NFL player consent to?  It can't be that the consent analysis requires a player to consent to the precise nature of collision that might occur in every play.  But it can't be either that a player does not consent to a scope of possible violence, going even beyond the rules of the game but within the contemplation of penalty assessment.  Consent must be to some hard-to-define cloud of possible eventualities, not too specific, not too broad, and none too pleasant.

Consent could come in to play in arguable assault--causing apprehension in another without resulting contact--just as well as battery.  But assault, if even that was Gaulden's intent, does not seem so urgently to invite the courts to second-guess governance within the sport, as a policy matter.

Anyway that's just a thought experiment, as no one is suing anyone.  Players are at least that tough.  And concussion-gate notwithstanding, football self-regulation has come a long way since Billy "The Gun" Van Goff.