A recent case heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Feleccia v. Lackawana College (2019), addressed gross negligence in a case involving a football injury. Feleccia involved two student-athletes at Lackawanna College who suffered severe physical injuries while both were participating in football tackling drills on the same day in March 2010.
Before they participated in the football practice where they were injured, both plaintiffs signed a document that held Lackawanna College harmless in the event of any injuries. In this waiver of liability, the plaintiffs agreed to relinquish any claims for injuries that they may sustain from their participation in the school’s football program. Despite signing the waiver, both players filed suit to recover for their injuries, advancing claims of negligence, negligence per se, gross negligence, and recklessness.
The trial court held that the waiver was enforceable and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Although the waiver itself was valid, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court later overruled the trial court holding that this otherwise valid waiver of liability was against public policy and could not bar a plaintiff’s claim of injury when such injury was caused by reckless conduct.
The court then reviewed the evidence that the plaintiffs obtained through the discovery process and found that “the trial court erred in determining that the waiver was enforceable without considering the scope of the waiver concerning claims of gross negligence and reckless conduct.”
The trial court had accepted the defendant’s argument that the players had assumed the risk of injury. One of the plaintiff’s claims alleged that the defendants failed to provide qualified athletic trainers during the football drills in which the plaintiffs were injured.
Here, the Court first held that the school owed student-athletes a duty of care when participating in a school-sponsored and supervised intercollegiate athletic activity. The Court held that a university had a special relationship with its student-athletes such that the university “had a duty to provide duly licensed athletic trainers for the purpose of rendering treatment to its student-athletes participating in athletic events.”
Further, it was for the jury to decide whether the defendant’s employment of unqualified trainers increased the risk of harm to the plaintiffs and whether they assumed a known or obvious danger.
Upon review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that gross negligence involves “flagrant” or “gross deviation” from the required standard. Thus, gross negligence is more than a simple breach of the standard of care:
“gross negligence does not rise to the level of the intentional indifference or ‘conscious disregard’ of risks that defines recklessness, but it is defined as an ‘extreme departure’ from the standard of care, beyond that required to establish ordinary negligence, and is the failure to exercise even ‘scant care.’”
The Feleccia court stated that “enforcing waivers of gross negligence incentivizes conduct that jeopardizes the signer’s health, safety, and welfare to an unacceptable degree.” As this reasoning caused the Tayer court to rule that public policy prohibits the enforcement of waivers for recklessness, it likewise leads the Feleccia court to rule that waivers for acts of gross negligence are unenforceable as well.
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