Court Finds Georgia Coaches Immune from Suit Over Player’s Death

January 27, 2009

Three suburban Atlanta football coaches cannot be sued for alleged violations of the constitutional rights of a 15-year-old who died after a preseason practice in the summer of 2006, a federal appeals court ruled last Friday.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the Rockdale County High School coaches were entitled to qualified immunity as public employees performing their duties, shielding them from a lawsuit brought by the parents of Tyler Davis.

The decision overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge G. Ernest Tidwell of Atlanta, who had said coaches Lee Carter, Peter Carlson and Stacey Wilborn were not immune.

The teenager died the morning after collapsing from the heat during a July 31 voluntary workout. Lorenzo and Pamela Davis sued the school system, the state of Georgia and various school employees, saying their son’s due process rights under the 14th Amendment were violated. Tidwell dismissed all defendants except the coaches.

The lawsuit claimed they failed to provide enough water for Tyler, ignored signs he was becoming dehydrated and subjected him to rigorous conditioning drills at the end of the two-hour practice. The suit alleged that although the workout was voluntary, a player who failed to perform was subject to further discipline, including additional drills or demotion to the junior varsity.

“In this school setting case, the complaint’s allegations of deliberate indifference, without more, do not rise to the conscience-shocking level required for a constitutional violation,” the appellate opinion said.

The coaches’ attorney, Ted Freeman, said the allegations were untrue, but for purposes of a federal lawsuit claiming rights violations all parties have to proceed as if they were.

“We had to accept that everything they said in their lawsuit was the Gospel truth, even though we knew it was not,” Freeman said. “The court is required to decide that the allegations, if true, would result in a constitutional violation.”

Freeman said the coaches would be relieved with the decision because “this has been hanging over their heads for two years.”

The ruling would not prevent the Davises from pursuing negligence claims in state court.

No telephone listing was available for the couple. The attorney who handled the suit, Edward L. Pleasants III of Columbus, Miss., could not be reached for comment.

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