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Parents Sue N.Y. School Districts, Medical Responders Over Football Player's Death

The parents of a 16-year-old who died last fall from football-related brain trauma are suing the New York school districts he played for and the medical responders who tended to him the night he sustained his fatal injury.

Damon Janes, a running back for the combined Brocton Central School/Westfield Academy and Central School football team, died last September after losing consciousness after a helmet-to-helmet hit in the third quarter of a game against Portville Central School. He reached the sideline on his own power after the hit, according to the Olean Times Herald, but then lost consciousness and had to be carted off the field. He passed away three days later.

The Westfield school board unanimously decided to cancel the remainder of the football season after the incident, seeking to honor Janes.

Janes' parents filed a notice of claim against Westfield Academy and Central School in February, which signaled an intent to sue. Per New York law, a lawsuit must be filed no later than one year and 90 days after the date of the accident, which gave Janes' parents until roughly the end of 2014 to file.

According to the suit they filed in Chautauqua County against the two districts and multiple medical responders, Janes sustained "one or more concussions" during the first half of the Portville game, then suffered another in the third quarter. The lawsuit alleges that Janes "exhibited signs of having experienced at least one concussion" during the "latter part of the second quarter of the game and during halftime, and again during the early part of the third quarter," but he was allowed to continue playing.

The lawsuit alleges both districts failed to comply with the Westfield Board of Education's concussion policy, failed to administer preseason baseline testing to help with the diagnosis of concussions, and employed coaches who failed to complete required concussion training, among other acts of negligence. Janes' parents are seeking punitive damages from the districts and medical responders.

In a separate lawsuit, Janes' parents name Portville Central school district as a defendant, alleging that the district failed to have appropriate medical personnel available to deal with a serious head injury. According to the lawsuit, the district refused to allow an ambulance to come onto the field, and the response to Janes' injuries was "unplanned, disorganized and unresponsive to the seriousness of his situation, which caused commotion and allowed chaos to develop among those who were on the football field, close within the area where Damon was."

The National Athletic Trainers Association has long pressed for all school to have emergency action plans in place for athletic events. Such a plan should be venue-specific—in this particular instance, it could have helped combat such issues as fearing an ambulance damaging a football field—and should be reviewed and rehearsed regularly.

"You always have to prepare, because it's the unexpected that really sneaks up on you and causes problems," said Jon Almquist, an administrator of the Fairfax County public schools athletic training program, during the third annual Youth Sports Safety Summit back in 2011.

A Portville firefighter told Buffalo's News 4 that the Portville Fire Department initially feared the ambulance would get stuck on the field, as it had been raining that past week, but did ultimately drive onto the field.

Janes' death underscores the importance of schools and districts having comprehensive emergency action plans in place. In life-or-death situations where every minute is critical, the lack of a well thought out response plan could prove to be the difference.

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