Assault and battery summary judgment reversed.

Where video footage involving an altercation between a high school basketball coach and a student from another school was open to more than one interpretation, summary judgment for the coach on the student’s assault and battery claims was reversed.

In Kelley v. Root, No. W2022-01625-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 29, 2024), plaintiffs were a high school student and his mother, and plaintiff student had been involved in a multi-person altercation between two opposing high school basketball teams. Video of the altercation showed defendant coach making contact with the student, and the student then losing his balance, falling, and injuring himself. While the coach maintained that he was separating plaintiff student from one of his own players and used no more force than necessary, the student argued that the coach “became an active participant in this fight and forcefully punched [the student].”

Plaintiff filed this case asserting various claims against both the coach and the board of education. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims, but the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling as to the claims for assault and battery against the coach.

Battery is “an intentional act that causes an unpermitted, harmful or offensive bodily contact.” (internal citation omitted). The trial court based its grant of summary judgment on “its determination that [defendant coach] did not intend to cause [the student] any harm.” On appeal, plaintiff argued that this allegedly undisputed fact could not be drawn from the record, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The Court noted that plaintiff did not need to show that the coach intended to cause harm to the student, but instead that the coach “intended to do the act that caused the unpermitted contact with [the student] that resulted in harm or offense.” (internal citation omitted). The Court explained that whether the coach intended to harm the student was “immaterial,” and it noted that the coach had “never asserted that he did not intend to make contact” with the student. Because defendant coach “failed to negate the intent element of [plaintiff’s] battery claim,” summary judgment was reversed.

The Court also overturned summary judgment on plaintiff’s assault claim. Assault occurs when a defendant intends to create an apprehension of harm in the plaintiff.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Defendant argued that the facts showed that his only intent was to protect his player, not to cause plaintiff student an apprehension of harm. Plaintiff, however, asserted that an adult charging at a student could be “reasonably inferred as intended to create an apprehension of harm in a high school student,” especially pointing to the difference in force apparently used towards plaintiff student and defendant’s own player. The Court of Appeals stated that it was not for them “to determine which of these interpretations is correct,” and it found that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendant coach intended to cause plaintiff an apprehension of harm. Summary judgment on the assault claim was thus reversed.

Defendant coach argued that “his statutory right to protect his player from [the student’s] incoming punch serve[d] as a defense to both the assault and the battery claims,” citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 38-2-101. Plaintiff asserted, though, that defendant coach used more force than would have been necessary to protect his player. The Court noted that the video contained support for both parties’ version of events, pointing out that plaintiff student was engaging with a player, but also that defendant coach used enough force to make plaintiff lose his balance. Further, three adults intervened after defendant’s contact with plaintiff, which could be interpreted to support plaintiff’s version of events. Based on these facts, the Court found that there was a dispute of fact regarding the reasonableness of defendant coach’s actions.

Plaintiff student and his mother also brought claims against defendant coach for intentional infliction of emotional distress as to the mother and section 1983 claims as to both plaintiffs. The Court of Appeals wrote that “both claims require proof, to varying degrees, of the unreasonableness of [the coach’s] conduct.” The trial court had relied on a case where a teacher slapped a student across the face in granting summary judgment on these claims, and the Court of Appeals stated that plaintiffs failed to cite any cases more closely analogous or to provide any specific arguments on the outrageousness of the conduct. Accordingly, summary judgment on these claims was affirmed.

Finally, the Court of Appeals analyzed plaintiffs’ claim against the board of education for vicarious liability for the assault and battery. Considering the text of the GTLA, the Court wrote:

The framing of section 29-20-205 is perhaps not the epitome of clarity, but as relevant to this case, a governmental entity may not be held vicariously liable for an assault and battery committed by its employee, as the general removal of immunity under the section addresses only negligent acts or omissions. But because assault and battery are not included within those intentional torts for which immunity is expressly retained within section 29-20-205(2), a governmental entity may be liable for an injury caused by its employee’s assault and battery if there is also a showing of some negligence by the entity itself. Therefore, Appellants argue, the Board may be held liable for the assault and battery allegedly committed by Coach Root upon a showing of the Board’s negligent failure to train and supervise.

(internal citations omitted). In this case, however, a different intentional tort exception came into play.

“[W]here the underlying acts which a plaintiff alleges to be negligent are predicated on intentional tortious conduct involving the violation of the plaintiff’s civil rights by governmental employees, the civil rights’ exception in section 29-20-205(2) is applicable.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Here, “the thrust of [plaintiffs’] claims against the Board is that its inadequate training led to a violation of [the student’s] constitutional right to bodily integrity by [defendant coach].” Accordingly, the Court found that this claim fell within the GTLA civil rights exception, and summary judgment for the assault and battery claim against the board was affirmed.

The Court correctly overturned summary judgment on the assault and battery claims against the coach in this case. The video and deposition testimony was open to multiple interpretations, and plaintiff had produced enough evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact.

This opinion was released four months after oral arguments in this case.



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