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COA applies sports injury conduct rule

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Less than three months after the Indiana Supreme Court issued a decision about sports injury cases, the state’s intermediate appellate court is now applying the new rule regarding how liability should be determined.

The Court of Appeals issued a decision Thursday in Cynthia Ann Welch v. Shawn D. Young, et al., No. 79A02-1012-CT-1407, involving a youth baseball game injury case that wound up in Tippecanoe Circuit Court.

Cynthia Welch, who was “Team Mom” for her son’s Wea Summer Recreation youth baseball team, was handing out bubble gum to the players during a game on May 30, 2007. She walked by the dugout where Jordan Young,  the 11-year-old son of team coach Shawn Young, was warming up “on deck” with practice swings outside the dugout, and his bat hit Welch in the knee.

Though the appellate decision doesn’t outline what her injuries were or what happened next, Welch filed a complaint alleging various theories of liability against the coach, as well as the McCutcheon Youth Baseball League and Wea Summer Recreation and Wea Summer Recreation Center. The defendants moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted summary judgment for all the defendants. Specifically, the court in August 2010 found that the action against Shawn Young was barred by Indiana Code 34-13-3-5(b) because his employer, Wea Township, is a governmental entity, and the Wea Summer Recreation defendants were not liable for the child’s negligence. The local court also noted Welch hadn’t argued Shawn Young was liable in any individual capacity, and it later found that she was a “participant” in the sporting event because of her role as “Team Mom” and that she’d incurred the risks.

But on appeal, the Court of Appeals dismissed the “participant” determination because of the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling from May in Cassie E. Pfenning v. Joseph E. Lineman, 947 N.E.2d 392 (Ind. 2011), a golf ball injury case in which the justices on first impression adopted a standard that summary judgment is appropriate when a sports participant is acting within the range of ordinary behavior and whatever injury occurs isn’t because of unreasonable conduct.

Even though this case happened before the May 18 ruling in Pfenning, the intermediate panel unanimously found that the standard applies and it doesn’t matter whether Welch was a “participant” in determining liability. Still, the Pfenning decision didn’t offer any guidance on what might be “ordinary behavior” and that is what the Court of Appeals took up largely in this current appeal on the topic of breach of duty.

That meant exploring the actions of both Welch and the 11-year-old boy who swung the bat and hit her in the knee.

“Our Supreme Court offered little guidance in Pfenning as to the meaning of its new rule that ‘if the conduct of such participant [i.e. the alleged tortfeasor] is within the range of ordinary behavior of participants in the sport, the conduct is reasonable as a matter of law and does not constitute a breach of duty,” Judge Melissa May wrote.

The appellate panel relied on caselaw from other states such as Hawaii and New Hampshire, as well as a 60-year-old Indiana Court of Appeals case involving a golfer taking practice swings away from the tee.

But questions remain in this case about where Welch was standing when she was injured, as well as whether the baseball game had actually started at the time. The court determined it couldn’t decide what might be reasonable, so it reversed and sent that back for the trial court to explore. Since Welch didn’t address the governmental immunity aspect in her briefing, the appellate court couldn’t say whether the trial court erred in that holding and affirmed it.

“The record before us presents issues of fact that will likely have a bearing on whether Jordan Young’s conduct when Welch was injured was within the range of ordinary behavior of participants in little league baseball. We must therefore reverse summary judgment for Young and remand,” the court wrote.

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