Concussions in Sports

Liability for concussions in sports is a growing area in Canadian law, as it should be. For too long Canadian amateur sports organizations have been negligent with respect to caring for their athletes, especially very young athletes.

Hockey Canada defines a concussion as a brain injury caused by the impact of the brain against the inside of the skull. The impact can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches or dizziness, cognitive symptoms, such as lapses in memory or concentration, or emotional symptoms, such as depression.

It is fair to say public awareness of the potential for concussions in sports is getting better. Most athletes and parents recognize the risk of getting a concussion and are willing to assume the risk since it is, “part of the game”. However, what these parents don’t recognize is the widespread nature of concussions to young children in amateur sports. In a recent study, the hockey education concussion project determined that more than 25% of the minor hockey players studied suffered a concussion in the course of one season!

Furthermore, once you have a concussion, medical research has shown that the effects are worse when you have a second concussion. This is known as second-impact syndrome (SIS).

Second Impact Syndrome

Despite the seriousness of these injuries many parents, coaches and trainers just think it is, “part of the game” and that no one should bring a lawsuit. However, the following comments may change your mind.

If the league or team is aware of the risk of concussion but chooses not to disclose that information to athletes or parents, the league or the team may have breached its “duty of care” to the players. With respect to, “it is just part of the game”, would a reasonable parent or student athlete consent to a risk of concussion if they knew the risk of suffering a brain injury during a hockey season was as high as 25%? Assumption of risk must be an informed assumption of risk.

Thirdly, there is an issue with respect to whether the coaches or trainers are properly educated in identifying the signs and symptoms of concussion.

Fourthly, there is an issue as to whether the league or the team has conducted baseline testing of athletes before the season in order to make it easier to identify if there has been deterioration in function after a collision.

Finally, from a legal liability point of view, one can ask does the league or team employ medically validated concussion tests? Tests such as the sideline concussion assessment tool (SCAT) or the King-Debick test have been objectively validated and can be quickly administered on a sideline without the need of expensive equipment. There are more elaborate tests which can be used to compare to the baseline testing, if the baseline testing was performed at the beginning of the season.

Liability for sports related concussion injuries is growing as is seen with the class action lawsuits in the United States involving the NFL where players have suffered repeated concussions and now the dire consequences are becoming clear.

If you have a child who has suffered a concussion in hockey or football or boxing or other contact sports and then suffered a second concussion and you have concerns about headaches, dizziness or cognitive symptoms or lapses in memory or concentration, have your child assessed by a highly trained doctor in this area and contact legal counsel with respect to the implications for the long term impairment in educational ability of your child as a result of these preventable sports related concussions.

Brent L. Handel, Q.C.