Personal Injury

Sports Injuries: Who Pays the Bills?

Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If your child is injured during an organized sport or other activity -- whether at school or elsewhere -- here's what you need to know about liability and your legal options.

From grade school through high school, millions of children and teenagers play sports and engage in other competitive activities nationwide. Injuries are an inevitable part of these activities, but that doesn’t make getting hurt any less concerning and stressful, for kids and parents alike.

In this article, we’ll look at the numbers behind kids’ sports injuries, different avenues for getting medical bills and other losses paid for, and your legal options if someone else’s carelessness played a part in causing your child’s sports-related injury.

Kids’ Sports Injuries By The Numbers

According to Safe Kids Worldwide and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):

  • Each year, more than 3.5 million children ages 14 years and under receive medical treatment for sports injuries. (More than 30 million children participate in organized sports each year.)
  • 62% of organized sports-related injuries happen during practice, as opposed to during a game.
  • Collision and contact sports -- like football and rugby -- have higher injury rates, but injuries from individual sports like gymnastics and swimming are usually more severe.
  • About 33% of parents don't take the same safety precautions during their child’s practice as they do for a game, and statistics show a tendency for organizations and coaches to take practice less seriously than games when it comes to injuries.

Medical Bills and Other Losses

Generally, if your child has health insurance -- whether under your coverage or through his/her own insurance policy -- treatment for all injuries and required follow-up care will be covered, up to the policy limits. Of course, you will have to pay any deductible or “co-pay” as required under the terms of the policy, and those costs might add up.

You may also be able to file a “third party claim” under the liability coverage of the organization or business that is responsible for your child’s sports-related injury. Just remember that the insurance company isn’t on your side; they’re most interested in paying out the least amount of money to settle your claim. And most importantly, don’t sign any kind of release until the extent of your child’s injuries is understood and the costs of all necessary treatment is included in the settlement. (More: The Role of Insurance in Settling an Injury Claim.)

For anything more than minor injuries after a sports-related accident, it might be a good idea to at least discuss your options with an experienced personal injury attorney. While insurance should cover medical treatment, it doesn’t usually adequately compensate an injured person for their “pain and suffering,” including anxiety, sleeplessness, emotional distress, loss of ability to enjoy activities, and other negative effects of the injuries. A third-party insurance claim might include a “general damages” settlement that covers these kinds of losses, but it probably will be for a nominal amount, unless you’re willing and able to fight hard during settlement negotiations.

Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit Over Kids’ Sports Injuries

Usually, in order to receive the full spectrum of “damages” (that’s just a legal term for compensable losses) after a child’s sports injury, a personal injury lawsuit must be filed. At the very least, you need to have the option of filing a lawsuit -- and the clear willingness to file one -- as a bargaining chip during settlement talks.

Filing a personal injury lawsuit means figuring out who played a part in causing or contributing to your child’s sports injury -- be it a person, an organization, or multiple parties -- and filing necessary documents with the local branch of your state’s civil court system, in which you will spell out the details of the party’s (or parties’) liability and your child’s injuries and other losses. (Learn more about What Is Included in a Personal Injury Complaint?)

As part of your lawsuit, you’ll need to show exactly how the defendant (the party you are suing) was negligent in connection with your child’s injuries. What exactly did the person or organization do -- or fail to do -- and how did that misstep play a part in the accident? For example, depending on the facts of the case, you might allege that your child’s injuries were caused by one or more factors such as:

  • inadequate supervision
  • faulty or unsafe sports equipment (including inadequate safety equipment like helmets and pads)
  • improperly trained employees
  • poorly-maintained facilities (a slippery court, a field riddled with gopher holes)
  • insufficient on-site emergency medical care

A Note on "Assumption of the Risk." If your child's sports injury came in the normal course of whatever sport or activity he or she was engaged in, the doctrine of "assumption of the risk" will probably make it harder for you to hold anyone else legally responsible. That rule says that willing participants in a sport usually assume certain dangers that are inherent to it.

On the other side of the coin, if the injury came as a result of an intentional act by one of the other players, and the conduct was so malicious that it might constitute assault in a different context, then you might have a cause of action directly against that participant (in addition to one against the school district or league).

Before You Try to Sue the School District. If you think that a school employee, a school district, or a municipality is responsible for causing your child’s sports injury, it’s crucial to note that you can’t typically go to the courthouse and file a personal injury lawsuit against the government (or one of its employees). Every government entity has put in place a strict procedure for claimants to follow if they want compensation for an injury allegedly caused by the government. Bottom line: If you think the school district, a school coach, or some other government actor caused or contributed to your child’s sports injury, it’s time to turn the matter over to an experienced attorney. More: Why It's a Good Idea to Have a Personal Injury Lawyer.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My son wants to play football, and the team wants me to sign a waiver saying that I won't hold the league responsible if he gets hurt. Should I sign it? Can they refuse to let him play if I don't?
  • My seventh-grade daughter was hurt playing volleyball for her school. My insurance has paid a lot of her bills, but the school refuses to submit any bill to its insurance carrier. Can I force the school to ask its insurance company to pay?
  • My daughter was hurt during a fight that broke out during a softball game. A player from the other team attacked her and punched her repeatedly. Can I sue the other player or the school she plays for?
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