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Commonality of Wrongful Death Suits in High School Athletics

High school sports are paramount to many teenagers and can be a great way for students to get exercise, learn valuable life skills, and build friendships. However, if these high school student athletes are pushed too hard or are placed in risky situations, the results can quite literally be deadly.

On Tuesday, June 11, 2020, 16-year-old Matt Mangine Jr. of St. Henry District High School in Kentucky collapsed at a soccer training session and never recovered. The coroner’s report stated that following a conditioning session where the temperature was around 80 degrees, Mangine fell to his knees, collapsed to the turf and was gasping for air. The 16-year-old apparently had a history of exercise-induced asthma and an episode of syncope, or fainting, during soccer practice two to three years ago. The original complaint at the time of his death was cardiac arrest, but an autopsy by a medical examiner ruled the cause of death “undetermined.”

However, five months after Matt’s death, his family is filing a wrongful death suit against St. Henry District High School, the Diocese of Covington and St. Elizabeth, who employed the athletic trainer. Kentucky Statutes section 411.130 defines a “wrongful death” as “the death of a person (that) results from an injury inflicted by the negligence or wrongful act of another.” In Kentucky, a wrongful death case must establish that:

The death was caused by another individual’s or entity’s neglect, default, misconduct or wrongful act;
The deceased individual has surviving dependents or beneficiaries, such as a spouse or children; and
These surviving family members have experienced measurable monetary injury as a result of the wrongful death

The Mangine family complaint specifically alleges that St. Henry failed to properly plan for first practices of the season after an extended layoff, failed to comply with the school’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP), failed to timely locate a defibrillator (AED), failed to utilize an AED and failed to comply with applicable standards of care.

While Kentucky law does not require AEDs for athletics, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) requires AEDs to be accessible within three minutes of any practice or game. St. Henry’s apparently had three AEDs on its property, but the lawsuit claims that one was not on site at the practice and no one brought one to be used on Mangine.

According to the American Heart Association, the goal of every AED program is to deliver defibrillation to a sudden cardiac arrest victim within three to five minutes after collapse. Dr. Samantha Scarneo-Miller, an athletic emergency medical response expert at West Virginia University reported that if an AED is used within three minutes of collapse, the chance of that person’s survival is 90%. The lawsuit stated that Matt Mangine Jr. collapsed at 7:12 p.m. and it was only after paramedics arrived that they applied an AED at 7:24 p.m. That’s 12 minutes. “For every one minute that that’s delayed, you reduce your chance for survival by 10%,” said Dr. Riana Pryor, an athletic environmental impact expert at the University of Buffalo.

The family is seeking damages for gross negligence, wanton and reckless disregard and loss of affection and companionship, since Mangine was a minor.

Unfortunately, Matt Mangine’s death and subsequent lawsuit is not a rarity. While Mangine’s death was deemed “undetermined,” most, if not all, of the wrongful death lawsuits allege the same thing: someone or something was negligent and violated a duty of care to the student athlete. Back in September 2017, a $15 million wrongful death lawsuit was filed in New York asserting that football coaches violated their duties of proper technique instruction, safe playing environment and supervision, in a situation where a 400-pound log being carried by high school players during a preseason football camp, in a simulation of a drill used in military special forces training, fell on one of the player’s head, killing him.

As shocking as this example is, this does seem to be an extreme example. Sudden cardiac arrest and heat stroke appear to be the leading cause of all sport-related deaths. A recent study found that more than 50 high school athletes died from sudden cardiac arrest during the two-year period studied, with football and basketball being the two most deadly sports. Yet the majority of states do not require schools to have on-site AEDs at athletic events, as demonstrated by Kentucky and Mangine’s death. From a legal standpoint, when an AED makes the difference between life and death (and therefore potential wrongful death lawsuits), you should certainly protect yourself from liability by having that AED at any and all sporting events.

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