Coach, school to face Wash. concussion law claims after player's death

By John Sammon | Jul 12, 2017

OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline) – A Washington football coach must face claims from the family of a player who died after suffering head injuries, as a result of a July 6 ruling by the state Supreme Court.

The ruling, written by Justice Charles Wiggins, found that the family can state a claim under the state's Zackery Lystedt Law. It also says evidence against the coach was sufficient to permit a jury to find liability against the coach, despite the limited volunteer immunity protecting the coach.

As a result, the family's common law negligence claims against the coach have been reinstated.

Valley Christian School (VCS) is a nonprofit, religious school located in Spokane.

Andrew “Drew” Swank died from complications after playing for VCS and suffering contact with another player in a football game in September 2009. His parents, Donald R. Swank and Patricia Swank, later filed suit against the school, coach and his doctor.

After the initial injury, the court opinion states he was removed from the game. The boy reported having neck pains and headaches, and his mother took him to see Dr. Timothy Burns. 

Burns, a licensed doctor in Idaho, proscribed pain killers and said the boy should be held out of sports for three days.

Two days later, Drew’s mother called the doctor’s office and said the headaches had stopped, and Burns signed a document releasing Drew to resume playing football. Drew’s father gave a copy of the medical release to the VCS football coach, Jim Puryear.

The following day, Drew played in a football game, and spectators noticed the boy’s play was below his normal standard. Drew was hit by another player during this game and staggered back to the sidelines where he collapsed. He died two days later, the opinion states.

Three years later, his parents filed suit against VCS, Coach Puryear and Dr. Burns, alleging that the three violated the Lystedt law, a law passed by the Washington Legislature (the country’s first comprehensive concussion law), designed to provide guidelines on the dangers of concussion and to help prevent head injuries and concussions in sports.

The three defendants moved for summary judgment, which a trial court granted. The Swanks then appealed.

The state Supreme Court reversed the summary judgment against Puryear based on the allegation that a reasonable jury could find the coach was grossly negligent in that he failed to monitor the boy more closely and withdraw him from play.

In the case of Burns, the court found that since the doctor had treated the boy in Idaho and not Washington, the trial court did not have jurisdiction over him and so affirmed a grant of summary judgment for the claims against him.

The Swanks’ common law negligence claims against the coach and VCS were reinstated, alleging that the coach (and school) violated the Lystedt Law.

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