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A Refresher on the Standards for a Motion for Summary Judgment in the Context of Potential Liability of a Volunteer Athletic Coach

By on December 1, 2017 in Liability with 0 Comments

By:  Christopher J. Carlson, Esq.
Edited by: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

The Appellate Division recently decided a case with a fairly unusual fact pattern which nonetheless is instructive regarding the issue of Motions for Summary Judgment in general, as well as the more narrow issue of the potential liability of volunteer athletic coaches.

Mone v. Graziadei and Girls Softball League of Westfield, Inc., No. A-4578-15T2, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2727 (App. Div. Oct. 30, 2017), involves a claim by Minor Plaintiff Mone arising from her participation in a softball game in which Defendant Graziadei was her coach.  The coach’s conduct in the context of N.J.S.A. 2A:62-A-6(c) was therefore a key consideration.

The then 13-year-old Plaintiff was injured while reportedly “warming up” a pitcher when she was struck in the face by a ball, knocking out one tooth and injuring her jaw and other teeth.  At the time, Plaintiff was wearing shin guards and a chest protector while warming up the pitcher off the field. Significantly, however, she was not wearing a helmet and facemask.

The defense argued, contrary to Plaintiff’s assertions, that Plaintiff was not advised that she would be the catcher for the game, and the other player had not been selected as the pitcher.

Plaintiff testified at deposition that her coach, Defendant Graziadei, had previously instructed players to wear “full equipment” whenever a catcher during a game or warming up a pitcher on the field.  Plaintiff initially repeatedly stated at deposition, however, that her coach never told the players they had to wear the equipment off the field.  However, she later indicated that she “did not recall” this.  Defense counsel seized upon this latter testimony.

At the close of discovery, Defendants moved for Summary Judgment, which was granted by the Law Division. The trial court found that the Plaintiff knew to put on the safety equipment when warming up a pitcher even when off the field.

On appeal, Plaintiff’s principal contention was that the trial court erred when it determined that there was no question that Plaintiff had been informed that she was to wear full protective gear when warming up a pitcher off the field. Plaintiff argued that the Court engaged in an improper credibility determination when it rejected those portions of Plaintiff’s deposition testimony in which she unequivocally stated that her coach never instructed the players to wear the safety equipment when warming up a pitcher off the field.

The Appellate Division began by summarizing the case law that governs Motions for Summary Judgment, noting that under Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995) the Court must “consider whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational fact finder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party.” Further, the trial court may not resolve contested factual issues; rather, it may only determine whether there are any genuine wine factual disputes.  See Agurto v. Guhr, 381 N.J. Super. 519, 525 (App. Div. 2005).”

In this matter, the Appellate Division concluded that the evidential materials the defense relied upon in obtaining Summary Judgment raised credibility issues that should have resulted in the denial of the Motion. It found that there was a question about the content of Plaintiff’s deposition testimony, and whether she disputed the defense’s factual claim.  The Appellate Division held that the circumstances under which the latter testimony- which was diametrically opposed to Plaintiff’s previously testimony- was given raises an issue of whether Plaintiff “misheard or misunderstood the subject question.” This accordingly emphasizes the importance of having a witness agree during the instructions provided at the outset of a deposition that if they are at all confused by any aspect of any question, the question will be repeated or rephrased as many times as necessary until the witness does understand, but if the witness does not indicate any such confusion prior to answering a question, it will be assumed that the witness understood the question.

The Appellate Division further held that the trial court not only failed to appreciate that the Plaintiff may have misheard the question, but “also went a step further and decided this testimony was more credible than her testimony to the contrary.  It was not the court’s function on summary judgment to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of conflicting evidence; the court’s obligation was only to identify the existence of such genuine disputes.”

Further, the Appellate Division also noted that even beyond the foregoing issue, there remained an issue regarding the coach’s supervision, one of the allegations in the Complaint. Specifically, even assuming arguendo that Plaintiff knew that she was required to but failed to wear the equipment, the Court found that “the question remains whether the coach was grossly negligent for failing to properly supervise her.”

N.J.S.A. 2A:62-A-6(c) in effect provides immunity from tort liability to volunteer athletic coaches who provide their services to nonprofit sports organizations, subject to the conditions and exceptions in the statute.  One of the primary exceptions is for damage caused by any “willful, wanton or grossly negligent act of commission or omission.”

In Steinberg v. Sahara Sam’s Oasis, LLC, 226 N.J. 344 (2016), the New Jersey Supreme Court explicitly adopted the definition of “gross negligence” contained in the New Jersey Civil Model Jury Charge: “Gross negligence… is more than ordinary negligence, but less than willful or intentional misconduct,” or “an indifference to another by failing to exercise even scant care or by thoughtless this regard of the consequences that may follow from an act or omission.”  Id. at 364-365.

The Appellate Division accordingly held that, reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, a rational fact finder could conclude that the coach’s conduct constituted gross negligence if the coach failed to ensure Plaintiff was wearing a safety mask at the time she was warming up the pitcher.  Thus, the trial court erred when it determined that, as a matter of law, the coach was not grossly negligent.

Therefore, this opinion is instructive in the larger sense regarding how the Court will- or, at least, should- approach the analysis of Motions for Summary Judgment in light of the Brill standard, which has now been in place for over twenty (20) years.

Further, it is instructive in the more narrow sense regarding the potential applicability of N.J.S.A. 2A:62-A-6(c) particularly as to any allegation of “gross negligence” on the part of a Defendant coach.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Mr. Carlson’s practice concentrates on the defense of New Jersey and Pennsylvania personal injury matters on behalf of insurance companies, self-insured entities and third-party administrators in the fields of premises liability, transportation law, and construction claims. He has also handled commercial, insurance coverage, fire loss, trucking accident, Dram Shop, subrogation and first party “Personal Injury Protection ” (PIP) matters, as well as Hazmat rapid response services to trucking accidents.

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