After over a month of being sidelined due to an inadvertently punctured lung which occurred while receiving medical care for a broken rib, quarterback Tyrod Taylor of the Los Angeles Chargers has been officially cleared to return to play. The incident occurred approximately twenty minutes before the start of the Chargers’ Week 2 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, while the team doctor was administering a steroid shot over Taylor’s pads for his injured rib.1. What Taylor thought would be a quick and simple pre-game procedure ended up costing him weeks of recovery from a punctured lung.
The National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”) announced it would begin an investigation into Taylor’s injury on September 23, 2020.2. Per the NFLPA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), any player or the NFLPA “shall have the right to commence an investigation before the Committee concerning the health, safety or medical care provided by Club-affiliated personnel.”3. Following the initiation of an investigation, at least two neutral physicians are selected to investigate the situation.4 Within sixty days after the start of the investigation, the physicians are required to submit a report detailing their findings as well as their recommendations, if any, for the parties to remedy the situation.5. Accordingly, there are several possible tort claims Taylor and the NFLPA can bring against the Los Angeles Chargers, the team’s physician, and the NFL.
First, Taylor could establish his injury arose from the doctor’s negligence. To bring a negligence claim in California, plaintiffs must establish: “(1) the defendant had a duty, or an obligation to conform to a certain standard of conduct for the protection of others against unreasonable risks, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) that breach proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and (4) damages.”6.
Taylor’s possible pure negligence claim against the Chargers likely fails on the proximate cause prong required to establish negligence. In general, duty can be established through statute, a contract, or by the general activity in which the defendant was engaged.7. As a player and employee of the Chargers, the team has a general duty of care to protect Taylor. Courts may differ on whether or not the Chargers breached their duty of care to Taylor. However, the claim against the Chargers is weakest on the causation prong, where plaintiffs must establish both “but for” causation and proximate causation.8. While the team may be the “but for” cause of the doctor being in the position to treat Taylor in the first place, the team was likely not the proximate cause of his injury. It can be argued that the risk of a punctured lung was not foreseeable, thus, Taylor’s pure negligence claim against the Chargers would likely fail.
Taylor does, however, have a stronger negligence claim against the team doctor. Duty can also be established if there is a special relationship between the plaintiff and defendant, such as a doctor-patient relationship. Physicians owe their patients a duty to use such skill, prudence and diligence as other members of the physician’s profession commonly possess and exercise.9. Due to the special relationship between physician and patient, the physician is obligated to warn the patient or to warn foreseeable potential victims if the patient’s medication or condition makes certain conduct dangerous to others.10. A physician has a general duty to exercise the care and skill ordinarily exercised by members of the profession in the same field and under similar circumstances.11. Taylor can argue that the doctor breached his duty because Taylor inadvertently received a very serious injury while undergoing a relatively simple procedure.
Taylor will be able to establish that the doctor’s actions were both the “but for” and proximate cause of his punctured lung. To recover on a cause of action for negligence, plaintiffs must show that the defendants’ breach of duty was a “proximate” or “legal” cause of their injury.12. California law states that causation exists where the defendant’s breach of duty to exercise ordinary care was a substantial factor in bringing about plaintiff’s harm.13. Here, the doctor’s failure to adequately perform a simple steroid shot was the sole cause of Taylor’s punctured lung.
Lastly, a court will assess the possible damages that occurred because of the negligent act. Here, Taylor could argue for damages based on his physical injury, economic loss, and loss of chance. Taylor could argue that he lost his starting quarterback position because of the doctor’s negligence. He missed over a month of practice with the team and may even have future complications with his lungs. Courts apply economic loss and loss of chance doctrines sparingly, and plaintiffs often have difficulty successfully arguing for these damage awards.
However, even if Taylor and the NFLPA are successful on the negligence claim against the team physician, Taylor also has a potential vicarious liability claim against the Los Angeles Chargers. Vicarious liability is a broad claim that holds actors other than the wrongdoer liable because of their relationship to the wrongdoer.14. Respondeat superior, which literally means “let the master answer,” is one form of such vicarious liability.15. The doctrine of respondeat superior holds employers liable for careless actions of their employees committed in the course of their employment, regardless of whether or not the employer authorized the actions.16. Liability does not attach to the employer if the tortfeasor’s actions were beyond the scope of his or her employment.17 Importantly, vicarious liability for careless actions in an employer-employee relationship does not attach if the tortfeasor is an independent contractor rather than an employee.18.
In order to successfully bring a vicarious liability claim against the Los Angeles Chargers, Taylor must first establish whether the team physician who performed the injection in question was in fact an employee of the team. If the doctor was an employee of the Chargers, and if a court establishes that the doctor acted negligently, then Taylor’s vicarious liability claim is likely to be successful. California courts ask not only whether the action was within the scope of employment, but also whether the act was in any way foreseeable based on the employee’s duties.19. Because the steroid injection was almost definitely within the physician’s duties as the team doctor, a court will likely find there is a strong vicarious liability claim here.
In addition to proving a pure negligence claim, Taylor also has a possible medical malpractice claim against the team physician. In medical malpractice claims where an unexpected injury occurs that the doctor did not warn the patient about, the inquiry focuses on whether or not the patient was informed of potential risks.20. Medical malpractice claims require the testimony of experts to compare what the normative industry practices are.21
As of November 2020, however, the NFLPA remains silent on the status of its investigation, and no such negligence or medical malpractice charges have been filed. While Taylor has been medically cleared and has returned to practice, the wake of the doctor’s actions are still being felt. Although dressing for games, Taylor has yet to play since his injury. Still grappling with the future of his football career on the Chargers, Taylor must also consider what legal remedies are available to him.