California Concussion Law Takes Effect January 2012, Increasing School Liability

On October 5, 2011 California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill No. 25

which requires that schools with elective sports programs pay closer attention to concussions. The bill exhorts school personnel to sit out players with a suspected concussion. The athletes are not allowed to return to play without written clearance by a licensed medical provider.

The passage of Assembly Bill No. 25 follows the well-covered deaths of high school students Jaquan Waller in September of 2008 and of Ryne Dougherty in October of the same year. Each player died after they were returned to play too soon after suffering a concussion.

Concussions are caused by a sudden blow which moves the brain rapidly inside the skull. The arteries in the brain constrict, reducing blood flow. Concussions slow reaction time and decrease coordination, significantly increasing the chances of a second concussion if an athlete is not allowed to fully recover. A second impact may cause the brain to swell and puts the concussed person at risk for cerebral bleeding and fatal brain stem failure. A second concussion that occurs before the first is healed is known as second impact syndrome.

Symptoms of concussion include dizziness, disorientation, nausea, headaches, cognitive difficulties, and changes in sleep patterns. The majority of concussions are classified as mild and 90% of concussions sufferers do not lose consciousness. Since the common symptoms of concussions are not obviously physical signs, concussions are difficult to identify.

The bill’s requirements aim to protect students eighteen years old and under because they are susceptible to more frequent and more severe concussions than older athletes as their brains are still in the development stage. Concussions may have serious negative effects on students’ academic abilities and on their physical well-being. It is irresponsible of schools to allow students to return to play based on whether they feel well enough, as students desire to play and the pressure to perform causes them to lie about symptoms. Some schools have implemented concussion management programs to determine if a student athlete has suffered a concussion. Initial tests include analytical and memory questions asked of a student who has a suspected concussion, as well as a physical assessment to determine reaction times and coordination.

Schools and families should also be aware that football is not the only sport that has a high risk of concussions. Girls who play soccer actually suffer higher rates of concussion than helmet-bearing football players. Men and women’s lacrosse also see high rates of concussion injuries.

California schools now have a duty by law to immediately take players of elective sports out of the game with suspected brain injuries until a doctor deems them fully recovered. Schools that deviate from this duty and do not identify high risk students and look out for possible concussions are exposing themselves to allegations of negligence and possible lawsuits. Furthermore, coaches or athletic trainers that feel the pressure to return athletes too early to play in key games may stunt the recovery of the athlete and create a liability for the school. For instance in New Jersey, where a similar law exists, La Salle University settled with the family of Preston Plevretes for $7.5 million dollars after he suffered second impact syndrome.

Photo credit: kconnors from morguefile.com

Parents that feel that their child’s after school sports program disregarded their child’s health leading to a concussion should contact an attorney for advice. Please call for a free consultation.

Greg Brod is an experienced Bay Area personal injury attorney and a member of the Sports Lawyer Association. Mr. Brod provides sports injury representation in the San Francisco Bay Area and surrounding regions.