Report: Maine High Schools Lag in Student Injury Prevention, Lacking Certified Athletic Trainers

One of the best lines of defense in preventing youth sports injuries are certified athletic trainers, per the American College of Sports Medicine, American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association. An athletic trainer is someone who is certified and licensed in the health care field of sports medicine, and has been recognized by the American Medical Association as an allied health care professional since 1990. Portland injury lawyers in Maine know that while it’s generally difficult to hold a school district liable for an athlete injury, courts have identified a number of areas of potential liability in the context of organized athletic events at the high school level.

A 1997 ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in Searles v. Trustees held that colleges, private schools and public schools owe a legal duty to exercise reasonable care toward their students. This duty encompasses the responsibility of coaches and athletic trainers to exercise reasonable care for the health and safety of their students, which means conforming to the standard of care required of an ordinary and careful trainer.

But what if there is no certified athletic trainer at the school? A recent report by The Portland Press Herald revealed Maine is behind other states in New England and nationally for hiring athletic trainers to help prevent serious student injury. Of 143 public and private high schools in the state, only 51 have full-time athletic trainers attending after-school practices (where 40 percent of student athlete injuries happen) and games. The problem is most acute in school districts that are rural because they lack funding and also student participation is lower. Of the 33 schools that don’t have an athletic trainer, sports enrollment is at less than 150 each.

Certified Athletic Trainers Lower Risk of High School Injury

Athletic trainers at other schools lament that it will take a serious injury for these schools to act. It’s proven a challenge though, particularly as the health care insurers that once covered part-time athletic trainers pulled their coverage. All this while youth safety and health experts insist it’s critical to have a certified health care professional who is trained to recognize sports injuries – including concussions (or any traumatic brain injury), spinal injury, overexertion or cardiac/respiratory issue that may be life-threatening. They are known to play a key role in preventing injuries at Maine schools, as well as treating and preventing them.

Portland injury lawyers understand that injuries are far less frequent at schools with an athletic trainer compared to schools without. Nationally, U.S. Department of Education data shows about 66 percent of high schools have a full- or part-time athletic trainer. In Maine, 64 percent of high schools have one, which places it not only behind the national average, but last among the six New England states as well. As one researcher tracking high school sports injuries over the last 15 years stated, “If you cannot afford the services of an athletic trainer, then your school can’t afford to offer football.”

Can Schools be Held Liable for Sports Injuries in Maine?

In some cases, courts in Maine have held schools can be liable for injuries sustained by students in school-sponsored athletics. Some areas of liability that have been identified include:

  • Screening to provide/deny medical clearance to participate in a certain sport.
  • Providing adequate facilities and availability of medical equipment for use by team physicians, athletic trainers, etc.
  • Having a plan in place to deal with emergencies and athletic injuries that may arise.
  • Availability of someone to diagnose/treat injuries that occur in the course of athletics.
  • Having a professional on-hand to make medical decisions about whether a student athlete should return to play.
  • Adequately training/certifying/supervising coaches, physicians, athletic trainers and others.

It is true that many sporting events have inherent and assumed risks, but the question of legal liability often comes down to whether actions of the coach, trainer or doctor increases the risk inherent in playing that particular sport. Claimants also need to overcome assertions of governmental immunity and, in some cases, exculpatory agreements wherein students have signed waivers prior to allowing student participation.

If your child has been injured in a Maine high school sport, contact the Portland personal injury lawyers at Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-490-5218 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Legal Liability in Covering Athletic Events, Jan. 2009, Sports Health

More Blog Entries:

Liability for School Bullying: Is District Responsible for Student Assault and Head Injury?, Feb. 15, 2019, Portland School Injury Attorney Blog