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As you get ready to embark upon another season, I thought it would be important to share about my experience as an "expert witness" in a court case this past spring. Unfortunately, we live in a very litigious society in 2016, with more and more coaches and educators being sued. Without thinking very hard, I can immediately think of three head coaches who have reached out to me just over the course of the last year after being sued by players and parents.
I can't get in to too many details, but a law firm on the west coast came across my consulting website online and reached out to me to discuss a case it was involved in. A student-athlete was injured during a summer scrimmage and the firm retained me as an expert witness.
I pored over hundreds and hundreds of pages of depositions to learn about the injury, the testimony of the student-athlete who was injured, witnesses to the event, and more. My goal was to study the case, and then give my opinion based on my coaching background (15 years coaching football), education and training (masters in athletic administration), credentials (certified athletic administrator) and my experience as an athletic director.
Here are three things coaches can learn from my experience as an expert witness in a case against football coaches.
1. Make sure that the written policies, procedures and guidelines in your athletic handbooks and team policies are accurate and up to date
Anything you have written down will be examined, reexamined, put under a microscope, reexamined, looked at, dissected, torn apart, and did I mention examined? Make sure that any and all written material that has any kind of policies or rules has been approved by your administration and school lawyers if the administration deems it necessary. I've heard of some cases where the district has said that the coach's policy was not "district-approved." Make sure that any of your team rules, consequences and policies about transportation, who is responsible for the mouthpieces or anything else important has been reviewed with a fine-tooth comb. 2. Make sure that your coaching staff have all of their necessary credentials, licenses, certificates and state requirements up to date
If you have one coach who has not been properly trained or certified, this will be pounced on by lawyers. If even one coach's certification falls through the cracks, you will be seen as liable, disorganized or untrained. In California, for instance, coaches must have the following: CPR/First Aid training, National Foundation of High Schools Fundamentals of Coaching, NFHS Concussion Certificate, signed CIF affidavit and then anything the individual districts have mandated.
If you're a head coach, keep a database of all of your staff members and what they have completed, the date completed, when their certificate expires and more. This can be done on a simple spreadsheet. Don't simply rely on your athletic director or the district office to keep this accurate. At the end of the day, you are responsible for your assistants, and you will be the one on the stand answering as to why you allowed a coach who was not properly "concussion certified" on the field with you. Even if that coach has coached for 42 years, if his certification has expired in year 43, and he's out there, and there is an issue that he is involved in, you could be held responsible.3. If something happens that you think might lead to a courtroom one day, take copious notes, pictures and eyewitness statements as soon as you can
This case that I was involved with went to the courtroom during the spring of 2016. The incident happened in the summer of 2012. The span of four years is a long time. There is no way that you will remember all of the details that will be asked of you over the course of four years. And if you forget things, or "misremember" details from that day, you will be pounced on. You will be made to look incompetent.
If something happens, a major injury, a large fight or anything else that you think may lead to the courtroom, or even to your district office, start taking notes immediately. Take notes of the five Ws: who, what, when, where, why and how. Write down everything that you can remember from that injury, or that circumstance. Nothing is too small of a detail, because those small details might become major points of contention in the courtroom.
For instance, if a kid is hurt in a one-on-one tackling drill, you need to take notes about the following: how many kids were in the drill, which kids were in the drill, how many witnesses there were, who the witnesses are, where did this happen, what was the surface (all grass, partial dirt, etc.), the weather, the time, the wind, the kind of equipment the kids who were involved were wearing, how old that equipment was, when that equipment was certified, where those records are, who keeps those records, are they kept up locked and were the kids "evenly matched." If not, why not? Were the kids properly trained before the drill started, where did the coach running the drill learn about the drill, who trained him to run this drill, when was he trained to supervise this drill, and so on.
Do you get my drift? Just start writing about everything that you remember about that situation. And remember, any emails that you send about this situation will be in front of the lawyers, judges and jury.
Coach, I hope that you have learned something about the courtroom, something that can help you prepare should an unfortunate situation arise in your program. Get your written stuff district/lawyer approved, make sure all of your staff's certifications are up to date, and document, document, document when something happens. If you are able to do these three things, you will end up really helping yourself out.
Chris Fore is a veteran Head Football Coach and Athletic Director from Southern California. He consults coaches and programs nationwide through his business Eight Laces Consulting.