Thursday, August 5, 2004
C.A. Reinstates Athlete’s Suit Against CSU Over Practice Injury
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Court of Appeal for this district has reinstated a lawsuit by a former California State University, Los Angeles soccer player who claims the university promised to pay all of his medical expenses if he was injured in team activity.
A Div. Seven panel Tuesday ruled that Mircea Voda has a triable claim for breach of contract, contrary to a ruling by then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Madeleine Flier, now a member of the division that overturned her decision.
The panel did, however, uphold the trial court’s rejection of Voda’s tort claims against CSULA and two members of the soccer coaching staff. Justice Earl Johnson Jr. authored the unpublished opinion
Voda was injured during a 1999 scrimmage after assistant coach Christopher Cervantes struck him shoulder-to-shoulder. He broke his clavicle and underwent three surgeries.
Some Bills Paid
The university and its insurer paid more than $100,000 in medical bills. But Voda sued after the university informed him it would pay nothing further; he claims continuing and future treatment necessitated by the injury will cost about $250,000.
In addition to his claim for negligence causing injury, he alleged that the university’s refusal to continue paying his medical bills violated an oral contract. He cited a team meeting at which the university’s head athletic trainer announced that the university had a plan to pay players’ medical bills if they were “injured in a practice or competition” and exhausted any personal insurance they might have.
The university responded that the trainer, Lori Rudd, had no authority to enter into contracts on the school’s behalf. Only officials designated by the university president, such as the chief fiscal officer, the associate vice president for finance and administration, or the director of procurement have such authority, the university insisted.
Flier granted summary adjudication of the contract claim, as well as claims of deceit, misrepresentation, and unfair business practices. The personal injury claim went to a jury, which found in favor of the university.
Johnson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the contract claim should have been sent to the jury as well.
The justice cited Rudd’s deposition, in which she acknowledged telling the players that the university had coverage for their injuries. She denied saying the university would pay all such expenses, as the plaintiff alleged, but acknowledged she did not specify what the maximum was.
In fact, the university’s coverage was limited to a pooling arrangement with other CSU campuses and an excess policy with a private insurer. Each of those two sources had a $25,000 limit and a two-year cutoff, but the university paid another $58,000 in medical bills for Voda after the coverages ran out.
Summary adjudication was error, Johnson explained, because a reasonable jury could find for the plaintiff on any of several theories—that Rudd was speaking for one of the officials who had the authority to enter into the contract asserted by plaintiff, that the trainer had ostensible authority to enter into such an agreement, or that the relationship between the university and its athletes was such that it was estopped to deny the alleged contract.
Elaborating on the estoppel theory, the justice noted that Voda was recruited to the school as a soccer player, with a small scholarship, and that the university promotes its sports teams on its Web site.
“Admittedly, the defendant in this case is no Michigan or U.S.C. and it probably generates little if any income from its soccer program,” the justice wrote. “But the benefit colleges receive from intercollegiate athletic programs is not limited to generating income. Successful college athletic teams are important in generating school spirit, marketing the college to prospective students and the community, attracting media attention, and facilitating the recruitment of new crops of student-athletes.”
While there was little in the record about the relationship between Voda and the school, the justice explained, athletes at universities are typically subject to restrictions on their time and movements during the season. Johnson did note that Voda’s scholarship was year-to-year, allowing the school “to use the threat of nonrenewal to compel the student-athlete to acquiesce to many of its demands.”
“[I]n the case of a serious injury the student-athlete may not only lose his scholarship and be left without any options to attend other schools, his entire future may be adversely affected. Given the level of benefit to the college and the level of risk to the student-athlete it may well be that justice requires using the doctrine of promissory estoppel to protect the student against future losses which may accompany a severe injury.”
Van Nuys attorneys Gary Rand and Suzanne E. Rand-Lewis represented Voda on appeal; Deputy Attorney General Mark V. Santa Romana represented the university.
The case is Voda v. California State University, Los Angeles, B163096.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company