Football Death Leads to Reckless Homicide Charges: Kentucky Embarks on Unprecedented Case

Amanda Sherman, Staff Writer

I.  Background

On August 20, 2008, in Louisville, Kentucky, the Pleasure Ridge Park High School (PRPHS) football team was practicing in 94 degree heat.1 What was reportedly a grueling practice (with one parent describing the coach’s style as “training young teenagers for the Navy SEALS team”),2 ended tragically when fifteen year-old Max Gilpin collapsed after completing a series of wind sprints.3 Three days later, Gilpin died due to complications from heat stroke.4

When events as unfortunate as this occur, it is a normal response to look for someone or something to blame, and certainly, to seek justice.  In the past, situations similar to Max’s have resulted in the deceased’s family bringing a civil suit, as was the case after Minnesota Viking’s offensive tackle Korey Stringer died of heatstroke in 2001.5 Gilpin’s case is unique, however, because although Max’s parents have filed a civil suit for negligence and reckless disregard against the PRPHS coaching staff, criminal charges have also developed.  The Commonwealth is bringing criminal charges against head coach, David Stinson.6 On January 22, a grand jury indicted Stinson on a charge of reckless homicide in connection with Max’s death.7

The decision to bring criminal charges against Stinson is drawing a lot of attention and raising many questions.  Why was David Stinson the only coach charged criminally?  Where were the other parents who were watching the practice?  Why were no other players as seriously affected by the heat that day?  Time (and perhaps a jury) will help answer some of these questions, however others may remain unanswered even after a verdict is delivered. 

II. Kentucky Law

Under the Kentucky Penal Code, a person is guilty of reckless homicide when, “with recklessness he causes the death of another person.”8 A person is acting recklessly if “he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk,” and the risk “must be of such nature and degree that failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”9 These are the questions the jury will be posed with should this case go to trial.

III. Assessing the Case:  Each Side’s Stance

A. Commonwealth (Prosecution)

There are many accounts of what happened on August 20.  Reports say that the players’ requests for water were denied.10 One of his teammates collapsed during practice as well.11 These events will strengthen the prosecution’s case that Stinson had failed to perceive a substantial risk that a reasonable person would have observed.  Additionally, the dangers of participating in strenuous athletic activities in extreme heat are now fairly widely known.  The Annual Survey of Football Injury Research Report states that between 1995 and 2007, there have been thirty-three football-related heat stroke deaths.12 The report continues that “[t]here is no excuse for any number of heat stroke deaths since they are all preventable with the proper precautions.”13 Emphasis is also placed on the importance of making cold water available regularly and in unlimited quantities to athletes.14

B. Stinson (Defense)

Kentucky law requires that a reasonable person in this situation would have been substantially aware that there was a risk that was unjustifiable (Max could die) if they continued the practice, and furthermore that Stinson’s actions were a gross deviation from the actions of a reasonable person.15 Stinson presumably conducted grueling practices in the past and all of the players were fine.  If there is no evidence that the parents who were present intervened or tried to intervene, this may also serve as evidence that those observing the practice did not perceive the risk either.  Also, if Max had other health problems or was taking medication that Stinson did not know about,16 and was therefore at a higher risk of death or serious injury as a result, a reasonable person in this situation could not have been substantially aware of the risk the heat posed to Max.  The law here requires something more than just knowledge that Max’s death could have possibly happened, and this was not present in this case.

Another factor that Stinson may have in his favor is that this is a case of first impression in Kentucky and marks a significant departure from previous case law.  In the past, reckless homicide charges have not been brought in comparable circumstances.  Prior Kentucky reckless homicide cases include: the stabbing death of a man in his home,17 the shooting death of a prisoner,18 and a death resulting from a physical struggle between two men, one of whom was intoxicated.19 Stinson’s attorney may argue that reckless homicide is not an appropriate charge for Stinson: the only reason this charge is being brought is to make an example of him.

IV. Justice?

What is obvious is that a great tragedy occurred on August 20, 2008.  For Max’s family and those who knew him there is nothing that will bring him back.  The fact remains the criminal law in Kentucky has up until this point not acknowledged events similar to those that occurred on August 20 as constituting reckless homicide.  The decision in this case may have significant legal ramifications.  Perhaps, however, this is a problem best remedied in the realm of public policy:  it is up to those who hear of this to be sure that it does not happen again.  As any football coach would probably say, the best defense is a good offense.  Taking action, such as advocating for the implementation of procedures to be followed during practices in extreme heat and raising awareness of the dangers of heat stroke, will ensure that Max’s death was not in vain.

Marisa Floriani & Eric Schillinger, eds.

________________________________________

1 Will Graves, Hundreds Support Indicted Coach, Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 26, 2009, at 1; Gregg Sarra, Suffolk’s 10-5 Rule is Wise Counter to Heat, Newsday, Jan. 25, 2009.

2 Associated Press, Case Centers on Heat Stroke, Augusta Chron., Jan. 30, 2009, at C02 (statement made by Brian Bale, a parent who had seen the team practice on hot days).

3 Id.

4 Id.

5 Id.

6 Graves, supra note 1.

7 Id.

8 Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 507.050 (West 1974).

9 Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 501.020(4) (West 1974).

10 Curtis Krueger, Is Kentucky High School Football Coach David Jason Stinson to Blame in Player’s Death?, St. Petersburg Times, Jan. 23, 2009, at 1C.

11 Antoinette Konz & Jason Riley, Coach Indicted in Teen’s Death at Practice, USA Today, Jan. 23, 2009, at 1C.

12 Frederick O. Mueller & Bob Colgate, Annual Survey of Football Injury Research:  1931-2007 8 (2008).

13 Id.

14 Id. at 9.

15 Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 501.020(4).

16 See Dave Trimmer, Athletic Community Weighs in on National Tragedy, The Spokesman-Review, Jan. 27, 2009 (“According to the mother, her son had taken Creatine, a dietary supplement used to help build muscle mass, but had stopped several months before football practice started.”).

17 Saylor v. Commonwealth, 144 S.W.3d 812, 814 (Sup. Ct. Ky. 2004).

18 Smith v. Commonwealth, 20 S.W. 229, 230 (Ct. App. Ky. 1892).

19 Elliot v. Commonwealth, 976 S.W.2d 416, 417-18 (Sup. Ct. Ky. 1998).

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4 Comments

Filed under Municipal Liability, Prosecution, Sports Law

4 responses to “Football Death Leads to Reckless Homicide Charges: Kentucky Embarks on Unprecedented Case

  1. Stuart Sherman

    This was an extremely informative and insightful blog. High school and college sports deaths are motivated by those who at someone else’s expense will disregard the health of others. Thank you for an interesting article on this very important subject.

  2. Edwin Buitrago

    Bringing information like this to light should really help save others from the serious oversight of most coaching staff. Making people aware of existing laws that are currently in place against such negligence will also motivate everyone to move in the same direction of caring for the player’s health first, winning second. My heart goes out to the family for their loss.

    Great article!

  3. I couldn’t disagree more with Mr. Sherman above when he writes, “High school and college sports deaths are motivated by those who at someone else’s expense will disregard the health of others”.

    High School and College Athletes are adults and have a responsibility to conduct themselves as adults. We cannot blame the coach for his athlete’s willing participation anymore than we can blame the person who offers a diabetic candy.

    This child’s death was a tragedy, but to criminally charge the coach is a mistake.

  4. CONGRESS, DCBS, COACHES, DOCTORS AND CHILD ATHLETE ABUSE

    In our society, parents, guardians, baby-sitters, supervising coaches, who have a professional duty whether they are compensated or not, and other designated caregivers and supervisors are expected to protect children and adults from harmful people or situations. In Kentucky, KRS 620 and 209 provide protection for children and adults who may be suffering from abuse by a supervisor or caregiver.

    Congress began to take an active role in the child welfare system with the adoption of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (CAPTA), P.L. 93-247, 88 Stat. 4, 42 U.S.C. §§5101–5107. The Act created the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, authorized financial assistance to public agencies and private nonprofit agencies for demonstration programs designed to prevent, identify, and treat child abuse and neglect, and provided for grants to states to assist the states in developing, strengthening, and carrying out child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment programs.

    The United States Constitution defines our legal issues in terms of laws covered in federal jurisdictions and laws covered in state jurisdictions. Child endangerment is defined as resting in states’ jurisdictions according to our Constitution. That appears relatively clear. However, when states seek funding for legal issues then they are beholden to abide by the Federal guidelines of the issue.

    When our Federal Government decides to take special interest in an issue that needs further attention by the states, Federal Laws Affecting State Proceedings are passed and funding is provided. Then the states, if they want and take the funding, must comply with the Federal Guidelines.

    Grants to states are administered by the Office of Surgeon General, U.S. Dept for Health and Family Services, Administration for Children and Families
    The OSG has targeted Abuse by COACHES among other perpetrators. Several areas of research were cited as needing an expanded evidence base for prevention efforts targeted at the following:

    o Abuse by caretakers (parents and others serving in a caretaker role)
    o Abuse by teachers, COACHES, counselors, clergy, and childcare workers
    o Instances of abusive head trauma (formerly shaken baby syndrome)
    o Physical abuse
    o Sexual abuse
    o Emotional abuse
    o Neglect (the most pervasive form of maltreatment)
    o Maltreatment co-occurring with domestic violence
    o Maltreatment taking place in urban/suburban, rural, and tribal communities
    o Maltreatment taking place in poor, middle, and upper income households
    o Maltreatment taking place in all families
    o Child well treatment and health promotion.

    Child Maltreatment: An act or failure to act by a parent, caregiver (that might be a COACH), or other person as defined under State law that results in physical abuse, neglect, medical neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm to a child.

    The Kentucky Child Safety Branch of DCBS has responded recently, March, 2009, to the question regarding coaches as caregivers and I have included the answer below. Kentucky is attempting to comply with the Federal Guidelines concerning COACHES as caretakers or perpetrators of abuse. Agencies in Kentucky receive federal grant money for child abuse.

    “Our agency [DCBS] investigates abuse and neglect allegations involving situations where a person is providing care, has custody or has control of a child. Teachers, camp counselors, bus drivers, babysitters, grandparents, COACHES etc fit in to that category if they are left to care for a child and the parent is not present. To my knowledge we are investigating these type situations in this manner across the state. If [DCBS] staff have questions about whether a person falls into these categories, they can consult with Central Office or their regional attorney.”

    Therefore, everyone should report when serious physical and psychological (emotional) injury occurs to a child athlete. Doctors, especially, who treat an athlete’s injury and discovers information and acquires knowledge of inadequate protection (abuse) of the child athlete as cause for the injury, must report it to the DCBS and County Attorney. Athlete Abuse goes beyond sexual athlete abuse. Doctors are mandated to report all child abuse.
    A doctor report is not an accusation or diagnosis but a call for investigation into the suspect circumstances of the serious athlete injury.

    Recognition of the symptoms and signs of abusive sports injuries and doctor good faith reporting of suspected serious, preventable, non-accidental, abusive sports injuries to authorities will enhance Child Welfare in Sports in the United States. Education and enlightenment of the duties and standards of care of coaches, doctors and the entire sports community will aid in prevention and eradication of Athlete Abuse.

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