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Lawsuit alleges PIAA failed to protect students from concussions

Jason Cato
| Friday, Dec. 11, 2015, 11:54 a.m.
Neshannock base runner Kaela Zingaro scores as South Side Beaver catcher Capri Sollinger-Knisley awaits the throw during the WPIAL Class A softball championship game Thursday, May 29, 2014, at California (Pa.). Zingaro is one of three student-athletes who filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, against the PIAA alleging the governing body of the state's interscholastic sports did little to protect them from or help with concussions.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Neshannock base runner Kaela Zingaro scores as South Side Beaver catcher Capri Sollinger-Knisley awaits the throw during the WPIAL Class A softball championship game Thursday, May 29, 2014, at California (Pa.). Zingaro is one of three student-athletes who filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, against the PIAA alleging the governing body of the state's interscholastic sports did little to protect them from or help with concussions.

Many of Pennsylvania's 350,000 junior and senior high school athletes likely have experienced severe concussions and the kind of lingering effects three Lawrence County high school athletes had to endure, according to a class-action lawsuit claiming negligence against the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Two former student athletes at Neshannock High School and the father of a senior at Ellwood City sued the PIAA in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court late Thursday alleging the governing body did little to protect them from or help them with concussions suffered while playing high school sports.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages on behalf of Jonathan Hites and Kaela Zingaro, both New Castle residents and 2014 Neshannock graduates, and Domenic Teolis, 17, of Ellwood City.

The head of the state's governing body over school sports vowed to fight the allegations vigorously, and one legal expert said the PIAA will prevail.

“This lawsuit will lose,” said Hosea Harvey, a Temple University law school professor with expertise in youth sports law. “They are actually undermining the issue of student safety in Pennsylvania.”

Neither Hites nor Zingaro nor their families could be reached for comment. Samuel Teolis, listed as a plaintiff because his son is a minor, declined to comment.

Attorneys for a Texas-based law firm that specializes in class-action lawsuits and which is heading up the litigation against the PIAA did not respond to numerous messages from the Tribune-Review.

Bob Lombardi, the PIAA's executive director since 1988, said he was blindsided by the lawsuit in light of the measures the organization has implemented in recent years regarding player safety and concussions.

“This blows my mind,” Lombardi said. “All of our schools try to take care of the health of our athletes. I think we have been very responsive in asking our member schools to follow protocols.”

Rules in place

Since 2009, all 50 states passed laws regarding concussions in youth athletes. Pennsylvania in 2012 enacted its Youth in Sports Safety Act, which outlines responsibilities of schools and coaches.

“We have to have a player removed and evaluated by someone who is trained in the management, care and treatment of concussions. That's the extent of the law,” said Larry Cooper, head athletic trainer at Penn-Trafford High School and chairman of the National Athletic Trainers' Association Secondary School Athletic Trainers' Committee.

Many schools go beyond that requirement, implementing preseason baseline assessments for concussions and installing more stringent concussion protocols with the help of brain injury specialists.

“The PIAA was in the forefront, not lagging behind, to try to get something in place as a student safety initiative,” Cooper said. “You have to applaud them for doing that.”

The lawsuit, which alleges negligence before and after Pennsylvania passed its law, describes in detail concussion injuries suffered by the plaintiffs and the failure of coaches and others to recognize and deal with symptoms. No schools or coaches are named in the lawsuit.

Hites suffered a severe concussion in 2011 as a freshman attending a team football camp at Slippery Rock University. It took him more than a year to be medically cleared, but he still experiences learning and social difficulties, the lawsuit states.

Zingaro suffered a concussion in June 2014 while playing in a Neshannock High softball game. Doctors cleared her to return to play two months later, although her attorneys said she continued to experience headaches and trouble with concentration.

Domenic Teolis, now a senior at Ellwood City's Lincoln High School, suffered multiple concussions in his freshman year during football practices and games, the lawsuit states.

After suffering a concussion in practice in October 2012, Teolis played the next day against Central Valley, his lawyers said. He reported concussive symptoms to a trainer and coaches, but nothing was done until his parents took him to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC that night, the lawsuit states.

Claims against PIAA

The lawsuit claims the PIAA violated state law by not:

• requiring concussion baseline tests;

• tracking and reporting concussions;

• requiring qualified medical personnel be present at all PIAA-sanctioned practices and events;

• removing athletes with apparent concussions from practices and games;

• taking measures to educate school personnel on how to provide proper medical response to suspected concussions; and

• providing resources for student-athletes in seeking professional medical care at the time of a concussion, during treatment or for post-injury monitoring.

“None of these are required under Pennsylvania law,” said Harvey, the Temple professor. “They just aren't.”

In addition to paying for its alleged negligence, the lawsuit wants a court to order the PIAA to establish a medical monitoring trust fund to pay for ongoing and long-term expenses of student athletes and former student athletes.

Previous case dismissed

Lawyers filed a similar suit last year against the Illinois High School Association, making it the first prep sports governing body in the country to face a class-action concussion lawsuit.

A judge in October dismissed the case, saying the IHSA had worked to improve protections for student athletes and that imposing broader liability on the governing body could reduce participation in high school football or end the sport altogether.

Harvey said the lawsuit filed in Lawrence County “cuts and pastes” whole sections of the failed litigation filed in Illinois.

Instead of frivolously suing the PIAA, the plaintiffs should address their concerns to state lawmakers in an effort to improve Pennsylvania law, the professor said.

“The allegations of what happened are not frivolous, and the solutions aren't frivolous,” Harvey said. “But these are best addressed through the Legislature.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com. Sports reporter Kevin Gorman contributed to this report.

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