On Wednesday, October 26, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a short decision in Dennehy v. East Windsor Board of Educ., et al.. NJCJI participated as amicus in support of the petitioner-defendant, a high school field hockey coach. The issue in this case was whether a personal injury claim against a high school coach is subject to the heightened standard of care that applies to participants in recreational sporting activities under Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494 (1994), or ordinary negligence, which applies to classroom teachers. NJCJI argued that coaches in non-professional sports advance the policy objectives the Court acknowledged in Crawn and should therefore be held to a recklessness/intentionality standard of care like any other participant, rather than ordinary negligence.
The Court held that, under the specific circumstances of this case, ordinary negligence applied. The Court relied on the fact that the coach’s allegedly negligent action was the choice of place and time of an impromptu partial-team drill prior to a scheduled practice. In choosing the time and place of that informal drill, the Court reasoned, the coach functioned more like a classroom teacher supervising students and less like an active participant in the sport the team was practicing. Based on these narrow circumstances, the Court applied the caselaw as it currently exists and declined any invitation to issue a universal rule about the liability standard that applies to coaches. Therefore, in this case, the Court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor.
The Court opined that its decision is unlikely to release a flood of litigation. That might be true, given the limited application of its holding. However, the opinion should give recreational sports coaches pause before conducting certain drills and activities before or after scheduled practice time, in or around designated practice areas. This additional layer of concern about liability may deter individuals from serving as coaches in the first place, and thereby lead to the unintended consequence of reducing overall participation in recreational sports.