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Thursday, October 18, 2007
 
School District and University Liability to Athletes Regarding Antibiotic Resistant Staph Infections


This week, news outlets have reported a frightening rise in reported cases of MRSA, a strain of the staph infection resistant to existing antibiotic treatment. This life-threatening infection begins as a small sore which may resemble a pimple, blister or spider bite.

Staph infections have long been a particular problem for high school and college athletes. Athletes spend time in locker rooms that are breeding grounds for staph and other bacteria, and dirty uniforms and equipment can further the spread of the bacteria. According to one report,
the bacteria do thrive in locker rooms and gymnasiums . . . . "This scenario sets up the perfect scenario for the organism to invade the skin. In this setting, you have sweat and good exposure to skin. With youths who play football or lacrosse, the skin might also be cut or scraped, making the skin more vulnerable."
According to another report,
"If you go back to the locker room and there are guys sharing towels, sharing whirlpools or sharing weightlifting equipment," said Dr. John Francis of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, "there's a risk of this bacteria commonly found in your skin to then be passed from one individual to another."
The resistant MRSA also seems to have disproportionately impacted athletes.

Nine Pennsylvania football players - from various schools - have contracted MRSA this year, all having played on the same field. This week, six high school football players in Kentucky were diagnosed with MRSA. In response,
school officials said they are now going to sanitize school locker rooms every Sunday. They will also sanitize wrestling mats and weight-room towels on a daily basis.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, where six high school athletes have contracted staph so far this year,
trainers have worked with student athletes for the last two years to educate them about the risks of MRSA, said Jon Almquist, administrator of the county's athletic trainer program. Students are shown a DVD on the issue, and taught to have a trainer examine any lesion or wound on their skin for signs of infection, Almquist said.
Nor have college athletes escaped the recent rise in resistant staph.

Staph is a serious condition even in its treatable forms -- and, sadly, it is only a matter of time before a high school or college athlete loses a limb or her life as a result of the spread of MRSA. (A Virginia student died this week from MRSA, leading to the closing of 16 schools, but it is not clear that he was an athlete). Admirably, public health authorities are dedicating increasing attention to the matter.

What legal liability, if any, might rest on the shoulders of a university or high school for failing to take adequate steps to reduce the risk of such infections to athletes? Although there are several cases involving staph infections against prisons and hospitals, I could find none targeting a school district or university. However, schools have been held liable for serving E. Coli-infected tacos to students. See, e.g., Almquist v. Finley School Dist. No. 53, 57 P.3d 1191 (2002). Although schools are often immune for simple negligence, they have been held liable where they create a public nuisance or where employees of the school district recklessly supervise students. Might some of those theories expose schools to staph-related liability claims by athletes?





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