Parents of high school wrestler who was severely injured while practicing with former member of team was entitled to jury trial on claim that school district’s policy of allowing alumni to wrestle with students violated plaintiff’s right to bodily integrity under due process clause of 14th Amendment. Sciotto v. Marple Newtown School District, No. CIV. A. 98-2768, 1999 WL 740691 (E.D. Pa., Sept. 23). Governmental officials and entities typically cannot be held civilly liable for failing to protect an individual against private acts of violence. This rule was hammered home in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), which foreclosed a severely injured child from a civil cause of action against state social workers who knowingly allowed the boy to remain in an abusive environment.
Like most rules of constitutional law, however, the DeShaney rule is not an absolute. The DeShaney court indicated that a duty to protect may arise out of special relationships” created or assumed by the state with respect to anyone over whom it exercises custody, such as prisoners. In such cases the state has a duty to not be deliberately indifferent to the well-being of those in custody. In addition, the DeShaney court suggested, though it did not decide, that state actors may be held responsible for injuries inflicted by third parties when the officials were responsible for creating the danger the plaintiff faced. In such cases appeals courts have held that when state actors knowingly place a person in danger, principles of substantive due process render them liable for injuries that are foreseeable even if the injured person was not in custody.
Today’s column reviews a recent federal trial court decision that applied the state-created danger” theory of liability to the case of a Pennsylvania high school athlete whose neck was broken during practice.
On Jan. 10, 1997, Louis Sciotto was a 16-year-old, 110-pound sophomore on the varsity wrestling team at Marple Newtown High School in Pennsylvania. Greg Fendler, an alumnus of the school’s wrestling team, attended that day’s practice at the invitation of head coach Stu Nathans, as Marple Newtown had long tradition of calling alumni back to practice with the team.
Sciotto was no match for the 22-year-old Fendler, a member of the Pennsylvania State University wrestling team who weighed about 150 pounds. Even so, Fendler demonstrated moves, gave instruction and grappled with the boys; then he wrestled Sciotto.
Fendler put the boy in a half Nelson, which wrestling rules allow. During the move, though, Fendler heard a pop.” And the wrestling ceased. I can’t feel my legs,” Sciotto said.
The sophomore suffered a spinal cord injury that rendered him a quadriplegic. His arms, legs and diaphragm are permanently paralyzed, and he now needs a ventilator to breathe.
Sciotto’s parents filed a civil rights lawsuit against coach Nathans; Marple Newtown’s athletic director, James Smith; Fendler; and the school district. The plaintiffs alleged that the school district, Smith and Nathans violated the boy’s right to bodily integrity under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. The school defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the plaintiffs had failed to present sufficient evidence to satisfy the elements of the state-created danger theory of liability.
U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr. of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied the motion. In his ruling, Reed reviewed the reach of the state-created danger theory of liability in the context of claims against school officials for the acts of third parties:
The decisions of the 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have illuminated the circumstances under which school officials may be held liable for the acts of third parties in the school setting. In Stoneking v. Bradford Areas School District, 882 F.2d 720 (3d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1044 (1990), the court held that it was clearly established in 1981 that a supervisory school official’s deliberate indifference to sexual assaults upon public school children by subordinates will subject the supervisor to liability for a due process violation. Deliberate indifference, the court held, could take the form of affirmative acts, condonation, or encouragement.’
In D.R. v. Bucks County Area Vocational Technical School, 972 F.2d 1364, 1374 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 1079 (1993), the court, calling it an extremely close case,’ held that school officials could not be held liable under a state-created danger theory for sexual assaults on students by other students that took place in rooms that were part of a larger classroom suggesting that the school officials did not act affirmatively to create the danger or increase the risk of harm to the victim. The court thus made it clear that affirmative acts that increased the risk of harm to students by other students could form the basis of a constitutional violation.”
Against that backdrop, Reed rejected the Marple Newton officials’ contention that the state-created danger theory was not satisfied in the case of the paralyzed wrestler:
Plaintiffs have produced evidence supporting the foreseeability of the injury to Louis Sciotto. … Plaintiffs produced the statement of a wrestling expert, Andrew M. Matter, who concludes that inviting older, heavier, more experienced alumni wrestlers to practice and allowing them to live wrestle’ younger, lighter, less experienced high school wrestlers was an accident waiting to happen.’
It is not disputed that Nathans and Smith were aware of the existence and promotion of long-standing tradition of inviting older, heavier, more experienced alumni to participate in wrestling practices. Smith had personally observed alumni wrestlers participating in practice on approximately six occasions prior to the injury to Louis Sciotto, and knew that lighter wrestlers were allowed to live wrestle’ with heavier wrestlers. Nathans openly promoted the tradition each year at the wrestling banquet, and he personally invited Fendler to attend wrestling practice pursuant to that tradition. In addition, Nathans was aware of a prior injury suffered by a Marple Newtown High School team member while live wrestling’ with an alumnus. Furthermore, there is evidence of a subsequent injury under similar circumstances, underscoring the danger of allowing alumni to wrestle high school wrestlers.”
Reed pointed out other factors supporting his conclusion that the Sciotto’s injuries were foreseeable:
In addition, plaintiffs cite the By-Laws of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association governing high school athletics and interpretations thereof which forbid alumni and college athletes from participating in contests with or scrimmaging with high school athletes, specifically in wrestling. Also supporting foreseeability are parental complaints concerning the safety of the tradition of inviting alumni to practice, of which Smith was informed. Plaintiffs also point to the Wrestling Rules Book of the National Federation of State High School Associations to demonstrate the dangers of wrestling outside one’s weight class.”
As such, Reed held that the school defendants must stand trial on the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims:
I conclude that a reasonable jury could find — on the basis of expert observations on the dangerousness of the tradition of inviting alumni to wrestling practices, a prior injury under similar circumstances, parental complaints about the safety of the practice and relevant rules governing high school athletics — that inviting older, heavier, more experienced alumni wrestlers to practice with the Marple Newtown High School wrestling squad and thus allowing Fendler to live wrestle’ with younger, lighter, less experienced members of the high school team, including Louis Sciotto, created a foreseeable risk of injury, and that a reasonable wrestling coach and athletic director knowing of such a practice could have foreseen an injury to such a wrestler as Louis Sciotto.”
Having concluded that the plaintiffs had set forth potential constitutional violations, Reed similarly concluded that the individual defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. The judge acknowledged that besides showing a constitutional violation, the plaintiffs had to show that the principles allegedly violated were clearly established in a fact-specific sense. Nonetheless, Reed concluded that the school officials should have been on notice that permitting students to wrestle heavier, stronger athletes would violate the constitutional rights of a student injured as a result:
Based on the the general legal principles governing analogous factual situations,’ and the general statements … in other decisional law,’ I conclude that the contours’ of the constitutional right to freedom from school officials’ deliberate indifference to, or acts that increase the risk of serious injury from unjustified invasions of bodily integrity perpetrated by third parties were clearly established at the time of the injury to Louis Sciotto.”
That said, Reed denied the summary judgment motion and set the case for trial. Civil Rights By James G. Sotos Sotos is a partner of the law firm of Hervas, Sotos, Condon & Bersani P.C. in Itasca, concentrating in government representation. Sotos represents Illinois municipalities and governmental officials in federal and state litigation at the trial and appellate levels. He is a 1985 graduate of The John Marshall Law School.