The Appellate Division recently revived the lawsuit of a New Jersey softball player who suffered serious injuries while warming up one of her teammates. Her former coach and the Girls Softball League of Westfield may ultimately be held liable for the injuries, highlighting the need for players to wear full protective gear, including a face mask, even when warming up a pitcher.

[caption id="attachment_22090" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Photo courtesy of Mark Duffel ([/caption]

Injured Player’s Negligence Lawsuit 

Plaintiff Madison Mone was injured prior to her team’s softball game for defendant Girls Softball League of Westfield, Inc. (League). She filed a lawsuit alleging the League and her coach, defendant Kim Graziadei (coach), had been both negligent and grossly negligent for failing to properly instruct and supervise plaintiff at the time she was injured.

According to the suit, Mone, then thirteen years of age, played softball for the League at the time of her injury. According to her deposition testimony, just before one of the games, the coach selected her to be the catcher in the upcoming game. After the coach instructed Mone to warm up the pitcher, she and the pitcher practiced in an area adjacent to but not on the field. During the warm-up, Mone did not wear a face mask, although she had donned shin guards and "chest protection." One of the balls that the pitcher threw to plaintiff hit her in the face, knocking out a tooth and injuring her jaw and other teeth.

The dispute in Mone v. Graziadei revolves around whether Mone had been informed that she must wear full protective gear when warming up a pitcher off the field. Mone testified that the coach previously had instructed the players to wear "full equipment" when they were either the catcher during a game or warming up a pitcher on the field before it, which meant a face mask, helmet, shin guards, and chest protection. Mone maintained that the coach never told the players they had to wear the equipment when practicing off the field.  

Meanwhile, the coach testified that she instructed all players to wear protective equipment when warming up a pitcher, but did not clarify whether she also advised the players to wear such protective gear even when they were practicing off the field. The coach also claimed that, on the day of the incident, Mone had not been selected to be the catcher and the player plaintiff warmed up had not been chosen to be the pitcher. Rather, the coach maintained plaintiff and the other player merely walked off into "foul territory," where the player pitched balls at plaintiff, who served as her catcher.  

The trial court dismissed the personal injury lawsuit. Relying on the plaintiff’s acknowledgement that she had testified she did not remember the coach telling her to wear the equipment when warming up a pitcher off the field and the coach’s claim she had instructed all players acting as a catcher to don safety equipment when warming up a pitcher, the trial court held that there was no evidence to refute the coach’s assertion that the plaintiff knew she was to wear the subject safety equipment when warming up a pitcher, regardless of her location. 

Appellate Division’s Decision 

The Appellate Division reversed. It concluded that the trial judge erred when he dismissed plaintiff Mone’s lawsuit because there were genuine issues of material fact that should be decided by a jury. “The trial court may not resolve contested factual issues; it may only determine whether there are any genuine factual disputes,” the appeals court stated.

In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division agreed with the plaintiff’s assertion that the trial court improperly engaged in a credibility determination when it rejected portions of her deposition testimony in which she unequivocally stated the coach had never instructed the players to wear the safety equipment when warming up a pitcher off the field.

“There is no question the coach testified she informed the players they were to wear full protective equipment when serving as the catcher for a pitcher warming up before a game, but there is a question about the content of plaintiff's deposition testimony and whether she disputed the coach's factual claim,” the court explained. Accordingly, it held that the suit should proceed.

The Appellate Division also disagreed with the trial court’s holding that no reasonable fact finder could find the coach was grossly negligent. As the panel explained:

Here, according to the coach, the players were required to wear the subject safety equipment when they served as a catcher. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, a rational fact finder could conclude the coach's conduct constituted gross negligence if the coach, as plaintiff's supervisor, failed to ensure plaintiff was wearing a safety mask at the time she was warming up the pitcher. Therefore, the trial court erred when it determined that, as a matter of law, the coach was not grossly negligent.    

Message for Sports Leagues and Coaches 

When playing sports at any level, injuries are often inevitable. To avoid potentially costly litigation, coaches and sports leagues must be able to show that they took reasonable steps to protect the safety of their players. As the court’s decision in Mone v. Graziadei highlights, liability may arise if protective measures aren’t taken both on and off the field of play.

Do you have any questions? Would you like to discuss the matter further? If so, please contact me, Patrick McNamara, at 201-806-3364.