Malpractice Liability of Sports Medical Care Providers

Children and young adults are playing a large variety of sports in ever-increasing numbers. As the number of participants increases, so does the occurrence of sports-related injuries and deaths resulting in more medical malpractice actions against team physicians and sports trainers.

In this developing body of law, traditional medical malpractice principles usually govern claims by either amateur or professional athletes against their team doctors. When an injury or death occurs following treatment by a team physician, the prerequisite for a successful claim against the doctor is the existence of a doctor/patient relationship with the athlete. The claim must be within the scope of the physician’s understood duty to provide advice, diagnosis, or treatment to the athlete.

Although there are not large numbers of cases in this growing medical malpractice field, team physicians have been found liable for failing to discover an athlete’s physical abnormality during an examination, failing to deny medical clearance for participation in a sport, failing to disclose the nature and extent of an athletic injury, and failing to provide proper emergency care. In addition, if more than one physician independently provides negligent care to an athlete and the combined negligence causes an indivisible harm to the athlete, the physicians may be found jointly or severally liable. In other words, one or all of the doctors may be financially responsible for the injury.

Sports trainers have been found liable for an athlete’s injury when the trainer failed to promptly refer the injured player to a physician for evaluation and treatment.

Comparative fault principles may serve to reduce or completely bar recovery by an athlete against sports medical care providers. An athlete who continues to play after sustaining an injury or who does not follow a physician’s orders may have contributed to his own injury, and in some jurisdictions may be partially or fully barred from recovery. However, there generally is no contributory negligence when an athlete continues to play after receiving clearance from a team physician.

Courts have dismissed medical malpractice actions against team physicians and trainers employed by public educational institutions based on the institution’s general statutory immunity from tort liability. In addition, physicians hired by professional athletic teams may be immune from liability under certain state workers’ compensation statutes when those statutes bar tort claims against fellow employees. In other instances, Good Samaritan laws have been used to protect the actions of physicians providing health care to injured athletes in an emergency situation.