The phone rang in December of 2015, it was a number I didn’t know. So I let go to voicemail. “Hello Coach Fore, this is Nick Weiss from Sedgwick Law Firm in Los Angeles.”
My heart skipped a beat! What did I do wrong?!
“I would like to speak with you about being an expert witness in a case I’m handling regarding a football coach.”
Phew, okay, I’m not in trouble. But I’m not an “expert witness,” am I?
I called him back, and he explained that he found me online, through this website you’re reading. And he did some research on my education and experience, read a bunch of what I had written. He said that he was looking for someone to evaluate the facts of a lawsuit, and then give him an opinion based on that person’s education, experience and training. In a nutshell, that’s what an “expert witness” is.
I thought it would be important to share about my experience as an “expert witness” in several court cases I’ve been involved with over the past couple of years.
I can’t get in to too many details about the first case I worked on, but a law firm on the West Coast came across my consulting website online, and reached out to me to discuss a case they were involved in. A student-athlete was injured during a summer scrimmage. The firm retained me as an “expert witness.”
I poured over hundreds and hundreds of pages of depositions to learn about the injury, the testimony of the student-athlete who was injured, witnesses to the event, etc. etc. My goal was to study the case, and then give my opinion based on my coaching background (15 years coaching football at the time), education and training (Masters in Athletic Administration), credentials (Certified Athletic Administrator) and my experience as an Athletic Director. This is the job of an Expert Witness.
As of this writing (October 2017), I’ve served as an Expert Witness in a five different cases since December 2015.
Here are 3 Things Coaches Can Learn From My Experience As An Expert Witness.
Make sure that the written policies, procedures, and guidelines in your Athletic Handbooks and Team Policies are accurate and up to date.
Anything you have written down will be examined, re-examined, put under a microscope, re-examined, looked at, dissected, torn apart, and did I mention examined?! Make sure that any and all written material which has any kind of policies, rules, etc. have been approved by your administration; and school lawyers if the administration deems it necessary.
I’ve heard of some cases where the district has said that the coach’s policy was not “district approved.” Make sure that any of your team rules, consequences, and policies about transportation, who is responsible for the mouth pieces has been reviewed with a fine tooth comb.
Make sure that your coaching staff has all of their necessary credentials, licenses, certificates, state requirements, etc. up to date.
If you have ONE coach who has not been properly trained and or certified, this will be pounced on by the lawyers. If even one coach’s certification falls through the cracks, you will be seen as liable, unorganized, untrained, etc. In California for instance, coaches must have the following: CPR/First Aid training, National Foundation of High Schools Fundamentals of Coaching, NFHS Concussion Certificate, signed CIF affidavit and then anything the individual districts have mandated.
If you’re a Head Coach, keep a database of all of your staff members and what they have completed, the date completed, when their certificate expires and more. This can be done on a simple Excel spreadsheet.
Don’t simply rely on your Athletic Director, or the District Office to keep this accurate. At the end of the day, YOU are responsible for your assistants, and YOU will be the one on the stand answering as to why YOU allowed a coach who was not properly “concussion certified” on the field with you. Even if that coach has coached for 42 years, if his certification has expired in year 43, and he’s out there, and there is an issue that he is involved in, you could be held responsible.
If something happens that you think might lead to a court room one day, take copious notes, pictures, eyewitness statements, and more as soon as you can.
This case that I was involved with went to the courtroom during the spring of 2016. The incident happened in the summer of 2012. I worked on another case where something happened in 2009, and won’t hit the actual courtroom until 2018. The span of nine years is a LONG time. There is NO way that you will remember all of the details that will be asked of you over the course of four years. And if you forget things, or “misremember” details from that day, you will be made to look incompetent.
If something happens, a major injury, a large fight, or anything else that you think MAY lead to the courtroom, or even to your District Office, start taking notes immediately. Take notes of the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, why and how! Write down EVERYTHING that you can remember from that injury, or that circumstance. Nothing is too small of a detail, because those small details might become major points of contention in the court room. See OJ Simpson case!
For instance, if a kid is hurt in a one on one tackling drill, you need to take notes about the following: how many kids in drill, what kids were in the drill, how many witnesses were there, who are the witnesses, where did this happen, what was the surface, was it all grass, or partial dirt, the weather, the time, the wind, the kind of equipment the kids who were involved were wearing, how old that equipment was, when that equipment was certified, where those records are, who keeps those records, are they kept up locked, were the kids “evenly matched,” if not, why not, were the kids properly trained before the drill started, where the coach running the drill learn about the drill, who trained him to run this drill, when was he trained to supervise this drill, and so on. Do you get my drift? Just start writing about EVERYTHING that you remember about that situation. And remember, any emails that you send about this situation will be in front of the lawyers, judges and jury.
Coach, I hope that you have learned something about the court room, something that can help you prepare should an unfortunate situation arise in your program. Get your written stuff district/lawyer approved, make sure all of your staff’s certifications are up to date, and document, document, document when something happens. If you are able to do these three things, you will end up really helping yourself out.
Chris Fore has his Masters degree in Athletic Administration, is a Certified Athletic Administrator and serves as an Adjunct Professor in the M.S. Physical Education – Sports Management program at Azusa Pacific University. He is a speaker with the Glazier Clinics, and a Coaches Choice author. Coach Fore runs Eight Laces Consulting where he specializes in helping coaches nationwide in their job search process.