Home > Property & Casualty > Concussions in student athletes: does your institution have a risk management strategy?

Concussions in student athletes: does your institution have a risk management strategy?

headWithin the past decade, hundreds of professional and student athletes have spoken out about the side effects of concussions, with many filing lawsuits against the athletic organizations that permitted them to play while sustaining those injuries. From headaches and memory loss to anxiety, depression and even suicide, the emerging science about the effects of head trauma and players’ own personal stories has propelled the issue to the forefront of news media and sparked public discussion debate on the topic.

The Centers for Disease Control Prevention estimates that student athletes suffer about 2 million brain injuries every year, and other studies suggest that nearly 15 percent of pro football players endure at least one mild brain injury during the season. The legal implications are serious for institutions involved in these types of cases, especially colleges and universities that may face financial loss and reputational harm. The guidelines and regulations for the care and prevention of concussions continues to change and evolve – therefore, higher-ed institutions need to establish their own risk management procedures to help mitigate potential complaints, as well as stay informed on all current legislation and legal precedents that stem from these cases.

Legal Cases
The expectation that an injured athlete should “tough it out” and continue to play has significantly waned as new information about the causes and long-term effects of head injuries develops. Furthermore, the increase in public awareness about the dangers associated with concussions has shifted the responsibility of care from the players themselves to athletic organizations and sports programs.

Most often, the concussion litigation plaintiff is a player who was hurt during a game or practice and alleges to have not received the proper treatment for a concussion. Other common claims may cite insufficient care plans, ignoring evidence of a potential concussion and failing to provide proper safety equipment. Negligence is a common legal theory applied in these types of lawsuits, whether it involves inadequate concussion protocols, inadequate reaction or inaction to the concussion, lack of education training, or negligent hiring and supervision, among others. It’s also not uncommon for an institution to face claims from faculty and staff claiming wrongful termination, retaliation, libel or slander after having been terminated for their failure to respond to concussions.

Concussion Legislation
The increase in awareness about the dangers associated with contact sports has led to a number of new state laws and new guidelines established by schools’ athletic programs. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s updated rules now require all member schools to implement a concussion management plan for student athletes. Failure to comply with these regulations greatly increases an organization’s exposure to liability, and is considered an institutional violation that may lead to disqualification from participation in the association. In addition, 31 states, including Massachusetts, have enacted youth concussion legislation for adolescent sports that incorporate essential protocols like educating athletes, parents and coaches about dangers of concussions and removing athletes from games if it is suspected that they have suffered a concussion.

Best practices for risk management

While there is still no single, comprehensive set of rules governing all institutions on standards of care for concussions, colleges and universities should pay attention to legislative patterns as well as decisions from recent concussion litigation as they develop their own safety protocols and concussion risk management plans. In addition to their updated concussion requirements, the NCAA issued guidelines for institutional best practices on the topic, including strict enforcement of sports rules that minimize contact with an athlete’s head or neck and authorizing athletic health care providers to have final say of when an athlete is ready to return to play following an injury. Colleges and universities should also have a health care plan in place that gives athletes access to the proper health care and athletic experts and establish emergency action plans for all venues where games are played. Any incident that results in a concussion should be well-documented and include an evaluation that records all steps taken to minimize risk and harm. Athletes who are removed from a game should also be carefully monitored for any concerning side effects. Finally, athletic directors, coaches and school officials should conduct regular updates and reviews of the institution’s concussion management plan to ensure it reflects current best practices and compliance procedures. Click here
for more guidance from the NCAA’s Memorandum on Concussion Management Plan.

About the Author

 Ronni Rausch is a Vice President at WGA, and works with a variety of clients, from public entity/not for profit institutions to professional consulting and financial firms. Her goal is always to negotiate the broadest possible programs at the most competitive premiums available for her clients.

617.646.0322 | RRausch@wgains.com | Connect with Ronni on LinkedIn

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