Family of College Football Player Files North Carolina Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against WCU Coaching Staff

October 4, 2011, by Michael A. DeMayo

Two years after Western Carolina University football player Ja’Quayvin Smalls passed away following his first college football practice, his family is seeking North Carolina wrongful death damages against the WCU coaching staff.

The junior defensive back, who was from Mount Pleasant, collapsed during a voluntary workout session for new players. Autopsy results reported that he died from an enlarged heart. Exertion and Smalls’ sickle cell trait were listed as factors in his death.

Defendants in this North Carolina wrongful death case include football coach Dennis Wagner, athletic director Chip Smith, head athletic trainer Steven Honbarger, defensive coordinator Matt Pawlowski, former strength coach Brad Ohrt, and assistant athletic trainer Brandon King.

Smalls family says that the coaching staff knew about his condition and they contend that they should have taken precautions to prevent his death. Smalls’s dad, Henry Malcolm Smalls, is claiming gross, negligent, wanton, and willful breach of duty to his son in the defendants’ alleged failure to establish procedures and policies for safely training and conditioning athletes suffering from sickle cell.

Athletic departments and supervisors are responsible for making sure that training and practices are run in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the health and well-being of athletes. Unfortunately, there have been incidents involving athletes getting sick or dying because the proper safety precautions were not in place or procedures weren’t followed.

For example, insisting that athletes keep practicing in extremely hot temperatures without proper hydration can lead to serious injuries. Per the CDC, heat illness is the leading cause of disability and deaths for young athletes. Permanent organ damage can occur should the body temperature hit 105 degrees. Per the University of North Carolina’s National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, there have been 30 football player deaths because of illnesses relate to hot weather.

Another cause of athlete injuries involving inadequate supervision or coaching is when a player is pressured to keep playing despite being sick or having suffered an injury. This can exacerbate his/her condition and result in permanent injury or a more serious health issue.

Athletic supervisors and coaches are also supposed to be mindful of any preexisting conditions (Sickle cell trait, a heart condition), an athlete might have and take the necessary precautions to make sure that no resulting complications arise. For example, when someone has sickle cell trait his/her red blood cells can change from road to sickle-shaped. This can prove fatal. According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, between 2000 and 2007 sickle cell trait was a factor in nine athlete deaths. NATA noted that letting athletes with this trait not part in “day one” football conditioning tests appears to help save lives. Altitude, dehydration, asthma, and heat can increase the risk of sickling.

Recently, a jury awarded the family of Ereck Plancher $10 million in his wrongful death. Plancher, who played football for UCF, died in March 2008 after an off-season workout. Plancher also carried the sickle cell trait.

Wrongful death suit seeks more than $10,000 from Western Carolina University, Citizen-Times, September 24, 2011

Smalls Family Files Wrongful Death Suit, Mt. Pleasant Patch, September 27, 2011

Athletic trainers discuss sickle cell trait, USA Today, June 27, 2011

10-years later, Devaughn Darling’s family still fighting, Orlando Sentinel, October 1, 2011

Western Carolina University

More Blog Posts:
Deceased Chapel Hill High School Football Player’s Family Claims Paramedic Malpractice in Their North Carolina Wrongful Death Lawsuit, North Carolina Injury Lawyer Blog, February 9, 2010

Parents File North Carolina Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against Lenoir-Rhyne University and Theta Chi Fraternity, North Carolina Injury Lawyer Blog, August 4, 2009

Family of 18-Year-Old Shot by Police During 2006 Home Raid Sues University of North Carolina Wilmington for Wrongful Death, North Carolina Injury Lawyer Blog, November 2, 2008


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