Port Angeles’ Eve Burke controls the ball in front of Sequim’s Daisy Ryan during a district playoff game at Peninsula College in November 2019. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News file)

Port Angeles’ Eve Burke controls the ball in front of Sequim’s Daisy Ryan during a district playoff game at Peninsula College in November 2019. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News file)

PREP SPORTS: State liability laws guiding return to classroom, fields, courts

ATHLETES ARE SIDELINED, parents are irritated and school and health administrators are under criticism for any decision they make with many community members wondering if they are more interested in passing the buck than seeing student-athletes pass the ball.

That’s not the impression I felt after listening to Port Angeles School District Superintendent Marty Brewer discuss the status of prep sports during his weekly Zoom luncheon last week with Athletic Director Dwayne Johnson and Port Angeles Coaches’ Association and new Roughriders head football coach Brent Wasche.

“I understand the frustration in our community and believe me, I am frustrated as well,” Brewer said to open the meeting.

Brewer has been putting in the time to advocate for the return of prep athletics, attending state, regional and local meetings with the governor’s office, state and county health departments and with superintendent peers at the regional and local levels.

“We are committed, not only to bringing our students back to school, but bringing our student athletes back to the court, field, wherever that may be,” Brewer said of Port Angeles’ efforts.

“I’m frustrated as well, but we are trying to create the right solution for our students to return to the field. I understand that anger, I get it, but be careful of where that anger is directed.”

Liability paramount

The difficulties in returning to some form of limited practices, which could have started Monday during the WIAA’s Open Period (Sept. 28-Nov. 30), or even to competitions, which are underway in some form in 39 of 50 states this fall, stem primarily from state liability laws.

Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican who served from 2005-2013, discussed why schools are hesitant to return to classrooms, let alone ballfields, during an appearance on the Eli Sports Network podcast on Tuesday.

“It’s a mistake to assume every state is the same [in how they determine legal liability],” McKenna said. “We are at the far end of the bell curve, the most extreme position, when it comes to the liability of taxpayers in personal injury claims filed against state and local governments.”

State law adheres to the concept of joint and several liability.

“[If] a state or local government like a school district is the co-defendant in a lawsuit and the other co-defendant is broke, is an empty pocket, if the plaintiff can convince a jury that the government agency is just 1 percent at fault, they can recover 100 percent of their claim amount,” McKenna said.

During McKenna’s time in office, he said Washington paid out compensation for lawsuits, settlements and judgments at a rate 10 times higher than Idaho, six times more than Oregon and four times more than the comparably populated state of Massachusetts.

“COVID-19 and potential liability for high school sports and the districts that run them — it’s a real problem,” McKenna said. “State and local governments could be liable for huge claims.

“If a school opts to offer sports against the governor’s recommendation and a student becomes infected and sues the school district, the governor’s recommendation could be used against the schools.

“And school districts don’t want to take that risk.”

This level of liability stretches from big-picture concerns such as a COVID-19 infection to storing sports equipment.

Port Angeles can’t even take the risk of keeping mobile soccer goals out overnight on the practice field at the high school track due to the risk of potential injury during non-school hours.

As Attorney General, McKenna said he tried to introduce less-onerous liability legislation that would still keep government agencies committed to upholding public safety. The legislation didn’t receive support, but he suggested the public contact elected officials in the state legislature and voice their concerns.

Brewer also said that type of outreach to elected officials would be “an appropriate step.”

“That’s where their voices could be heard,” he said. “Our legislative reps have a connection to the Governor.”

________

Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected].

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