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Thursday, April 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Coach Faces Claims of Brain Injury Indifference

PITTSBURGH (CN) - A Pennsylvania high school may be liable for the brain damage sustained by a football player who says he was forced to keep playing after a violent helmet-to-helmet collision, a federal judge ruled.

Zachary Alt says he stumbled off the field after being hit during a Nov. 9, 2007, varsity playoff game for Highlands High School in Natrona Heights, Pa.

As Alt aimlessly walked the length of the sideline after the hit, it was clear that his bell was rung badly, according to the complaint.

But head coach Sam Albert allegedly kept the disoriented player in the game, and issued a dangerous directive: go after the opposing linebacker.

"Blow him up," Albert said, "referring to the type of violence with which he wanted plaintiff Alt to strike the opposition's middle linebacker," according to the suit.

"This violent instruction from defendant Albert is the plaintiff's last memory of the game," the suit claims. But Alt says he learned from teammates and video footage of the game that he went back onto the field, did as told and got rocked again.

"Disoriented and confused," acting as if he was in a "drunken state" and "exhibiting clear symptoms of a traumatic head injury," Alt was allowed to continue playing, enduring more collisions that further aggravated his traumatic brain injuries, the suit says.

A medical examination revealed that Alt suffered a serious head injury that day, and the effects have plagued him for over three years, according to court records.

When symptoms caused the sophomore's grades to tank, Highlands Principal Thomas Shirey offered to fix the marks with a "shake of his magic wand," Alt says.

Alt's grades were, indeed, "manipulated to allow him to graduate," depriving him of a high school education, according to the complaint.

"While the plaintiff did obtain a high school diploma from Highlands High School, the plaintiff currently possesses an education which is well below a tenth grade level," the suit says.

By fudging his grades, Highlands unconstitutionally denied Alt an education, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also alleges due-process violations against Coach Albert and Mike Rizzo, the team's trainer. Alt says they should also face a Section 1983 claim since they were acting "under the color of state law" when they sent him back onto the field.

A federal magistrate recommended in February that Alt be allowed to proceed with that claim, plus the claim that he was unconstitutionally denied an education.

"After an exhaustive search, the court has been unable to locate any case law to suggest that simply because a child is physically present in a school, that he is not being denied his protected property interest in education where principal and teachers are intentionally inflating grades to push the student through to graduation," U.S. Magistrate Lisa Lenihan wrote.

U.S. District Judge David Cercone adopted that analysis last week, and agreed with Lenihan that the 1983 claim can proceed against the coach and trainer.

The claim that Albert and Rizzo forced Alt back onto the field after the initial Nov. 9 hit adequately alleges conscience-shocking deliberate indifference to the player's well-being for a constitutional claim under the state-created Danger theory, Lenihan found.Cercone agreed but said Alt must amend his suit to explain why Rizzo should be considered a state actor in light of the fact that he worked for a third party that contracted with Highlands for athletic training services.

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