Home » Youth and High School Sports Concussion Cases: Do They Show The Limits of Litigation In Making Sports Safer?

Youth and High School Sports Concussion Cases: Do They Show The Limits of Litigation In Making Sports Safer?

Political football 

In other words, the court was saying, in so many words, that plaintiffs' lawsuit against FIFA was essentially based on political, not legal arguments, based on FIFA's control and influence over world soccer at all levels of the game, including at the lower levels of soccer, which have adopted rules that mirror FIFA's Laws of the Game.

From a political standpoint, the lawsuit made sense: because FIFA is responsible for all things soccer, there could be no more inviting target, politically, if the objective was to generate publicity and put public pressure on FIFA to change the Laws of the Game.

From a strictly legal standpoint, however, the lawsuit was doomed from the start: that, from its headquarters in Switzerland, FIFA exerts a tremendous sway over American youth soccer, is not the same as actually running youth leagues in California , and FIFA's strong influence over rules adopted by youth soccer organizations in California alone was not enough to make them subject to a court's jurisdiction. 

We believe the court was correct in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction over FIFA.  MomsTEAM readers who aren't lawyers might find the distinction between political sway and legal jurisdiction odd, but let's put the distinction differently. What if a MomsTEAM reader living New York, after suggesting a concussion management protocol that a MomsTeam reader in Minnesota adopted, got sued in Minnesota by a group of Minnesotans who thought that the New Yorker's program was flawed?  The New Yorker would probably find it most unfair to be dragged into a Minnesota court, right? Well, the only difference between FIFA and the New Yorker is scale.  In other words, just because FIFA's power makes it an inviting target of litigation doesn't change the law. 

Comedy of errors  

While there was virtually nothing the plaintiffs' lawyers could have done to prevent dismissal of their claims against FIFA for lack of jurisdiction, the same, in our view, was not true with respect to the California youth soccer groups. 

In contrast to the dismissal of the claims against FIFA on jurisdcictional grounds, the court dismissed the claims against the California youth soccer groups because of what can only be described as a comedy of pleading errors, including:

  • failing to allege that any of the seven plaintiffs had actually suffered injury as an alleged result of any action or inaction by the California youth soccer groups. Only one had ever suffered a concussion, which was not caused by heading the ball. Instead, they all simply pleaded a variation of a single allegation: that he/she was at increased risk of latent brain injuries caused by repeated head impacts or the accumulation of concussive and/or subconcussive hits, and therefore was in need of medical monitoring);
  • picking as plaintiffs (and class representatives) six individuals who were not currently playing soccer and a seventh who did not allege that he faced any threat of imminent harm that was not purely speculative or hypothetical;
  • naming as plaintiffs who were either over the age of 17, and thus out of the age-range for seeking modifications to rules governing youth soccer, and under-17 plaintiffs who failed to allege any imminent risk of injury traceable to any California youth soccer defendant; and
  • seeking an order altering the FIFA Laws of the Game when the sole party with the power to implement changes, the International Football Association Board, was not joined in the lawsuit.

Not only was Mehr correctly dismissed on jurisdictional and standing grounds, but Judge Hamilton was correct in finding that the Complaint failed to state facts sufficient to support negligence claims against the California youth soccer defendants because it failed to make a threshold showing that they owed plaintiffs a duty of care.  The reason was because they had no obligation under the law to prevent risks inherent to playing the sport of soccer (such as concussions), and absent from the Complaint was any basis for imputing to any defendant a legal duty to reduce the risks in the sport of soccer, or that any defendant took any action that increased the risks beyond those inherent in the sport of soccer.  

The court also found, correctly in our view, that the plaintiffs had failed to plead facts showing that any act or omission by the defendants was a substantial factor in bringing about an injury suffered by plaintiff.  Not only did the plaintiffs fail to allege facts that they suffered any injury - including a concussion - as a result of the defendants' negligence, but the court viewed the allegations of injury as "vague, conclusory, and entirely speculative, rather than concrete and particularized." (no doubt because the current state of the science allows for no more than that)

Finally, Judge Hamilton found that  the defendant youth soccer organizations did not voluntarily assume a duty to adopt or enforce the consensus guidelines drafted by the various International Conferences on Concussion in Sport, nor had they specifically undertaken to take actions to eliminate risks inherent in the sport of soccer or to reduce the risk of injury from improper concussion management., 

The court ultimately found that the soccer players' claims that FIFA and the youth soccer groups' rules were deficient were not claims that they took an action to increase the risk in the sport.  The court was correct: failure to decrease the risks is not the same as taking an action to increase the risks, and one must increase the risks to be liable.

In short, the soccer players' attorney forgot three basic principles of negligence law every attorney learns in their first year of law school: that the plaintiff, in order to be entitled to relief, must suffer a concrete injury, that injury must be caused by the action or inaction of the defendant, and that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care.  Absent allegations that, if proven, would entitle a plaintiff to relief, the case cannot proceed to trial and must be dismissed.  The federal district court in Mehr had little choice but to dismiss the soccer players' case. 

Applying the law 

The dismissal by Judge Hamilton of the Mehr case teaches us a fundamental truth about the law: it can't be ignored in order to provide a forum for those dissatisfied with a private organization's rules.  Rather, courts are a forum to provide remedies for injuries.  Sometimes the remedy for the injury may be a change in a rule, so, in that respect, the players weren't completely out of line asking for change.  The problem is that they - and, more importantly, their lawyers - chose a forum completely ill-suited for mounting a challenge to the Laws of the Game governing worldwide soccer.  We'd be naive to pretend that there aren't political lawsuits, but even a political lawsuit has to honor the legal requirements of jurisdiction and injury.  The soccer players' attorneys failed to meet this threshold standard.