The court granted summary judgment to Defendant Walkowiak because there is no clearly-established Constitutional right under which Plaintiff could recover, and to Defendant Palmerton Area School district because there is no evidence to suggest municipal liability.
As to the coach, the court found that Mann had asserted a viable claim against Coach Walkowiak for creating a danger towards Mann. Generally, a state has no affirmative obligation to protect its citizens from the violent acts of individuals. One exception to this rule is if the harm incurred is a direct result of state action, that is, a “state-created danger”. A state-created danger may be established by a four-part test adopted by the Third Circuit:
(1) if the harm was foreseeable and fairly direct;
(2) if the state actor acted with a degree of culpability that “shocks the conscience;”
(3) if the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim by virtue of the relationship between the plaintiff and the state actor; and
(4) the state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created danger or rendered the plaintiff more vulnerable to danger.
In this case, the court found that, as a state actor in his role of coaching high school football, Coach Walkowiak met all four parts of the tests. (1) The coach had received TBI training and he saw that Mann had been hit hard; (2) after-school practice was not a “hyperpressurized” situation—rather, the coach had time to exercise judgment and take Mann out of practice; (3) Mann was a foreseeable victim because he was a student participating in a school’s football program; and (4) the coach ordered Mann to keep practicing even though Mann appeared disoriented.
State actors such as school athletic coaches are entitled to a defense of qualified immunity as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Because no court has recognized that a coach violated a student athlete’s constitutional rights by failing to take certain precautions, Coach Walkowiak was still entitled to qualified immunity. Although Mann had articulated a viable state-created danger claim against Coach Walkowiak, summary judgment was nonetheless granted in favor of Coach Walkowiak because of his qualified immunity.
As to the school district, the court found that Mann had not asserted evidence that could meet the standard for municipal liability. A municipal employer such as a school district may be held liable if its policies or customs caused a violation of a plaintiff’s rights. These are stringent standards, and Mann did not assert evidence to support his claims that the school’s policies or customs caused his injury. Rather, the court found that the school had a comprehensive Athletic Handbook in place. The court thus granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant school district.