Watchung Hills Regional High School senior Keith Garcia was playing in an away soccer game against Franklin High School on Oct. 29, 2015.
Franklin High's Idrissa Kamara, was "very aggressive" during the game and, according to the lawsuit filed almost three years later, was taken out of the game for intentional hitting another player from behind. When he came back into the game, the lawsuit says, he "continued to hit players from behind."
In the last minute of the game, with Watchung Hills ahead by a goal, the ball was kicked to Kamara and he tried to set up the tying goal. But Kamara kicked the ball too hard and Garcia took possession and started running upfield.
What happened next has become a matter of dispute and is at the center of a legal battle later in Superior Court.
In a culture that is becoming increasingly litigious, with minor complaints becoming major court battles, you might believe that the court system is deluged with lawsuits from high school athletes are becoming prevalent. However, that is not the case, as the lawsuits are as difficult to win as a Little League team playing the New York Yankees.
In a lawsuit filed in Somerset County in June, Garcia alleges that as he was running up the field, Kamara ran beside him. Then, with time running out and without provocation or warning, Kamara punched Garcia in the jaw and rammed him, knocking him to the ground, the lawsuit claims.
Garcia sustained a broken jaw and injuries to his back and hip, according to the lawsuit. He is now a student at The College of New Jersey.The lawsuit, filed by Cranford attorney Andrew J. Calcagno, has named as defendants not only Kamara, but Franklin High School, Watchung Hills Regional High School and their respective school boards.
The suit charges that the schools "breached" their duty to Garcia by "carelessly, recklessly and/or negligently failed to exercise reasonable care in failing to manage, schedule, monitor, hire, train, supervise, and/or take reasonable measures and provide security during the soccer game."
The suit also says the defendants "failed to take reasonable measures to protect the students and/or team members and more particularly (Garcia) against personal assault and battery" by another player "known to have violent propensities and who should have been removed from the soccer game after the initial incident of improper conduct."
Winning the lawsuit may not be so easy.
Steve Goodell, the attorney for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports in the state, said that, in general, courts, both in New Jersey and nationwide, have set a "high bar" for these type of suits.Plaintiffs have to show that their injuries were the result of "egregious" or "reckless" behavior, he said. That standard, courts have ruled, avoids a "flood of litigation" generated by sports injuries.
A 2001 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling involving a golfer who hit a wayward shot that struck another golfer set the precedent for sports-related lawsuits.The court found that a jury must resolve, through testimony and evidence, whether a sports injury was caused by intentional recklessness
Courts have also ruled, Goodell said, that when an athlete decides to participate in a sport, they are aware of the "inherent risk" they might be injured.
"Risk of injury is a common and inherent aspect of athletic effort," the Supreme Court wrote in the 2001 decision.
"When a golfer steps onto the golf course, he or she knows that other golfers are likely to slice, hook or shank shots," the court wrote. "The likelihood of such wayward shots is an inherent part of the game."
Another hurdle these lawsuits have to clear is the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, Goodell said.
The law says that under the common-law rule of "sovereign immunity," individuals and businesses are prevented from bringing most claims against government entities. One exception to the rule, however, allows individuals who are injured by the negligence of a public entity to bring a claim.
In their answers to Garcia's lawsuit, both Watchung Hills and Franklin have listed that law as one of their defenses.