Headline Negligence Sports Law Torts

Stafon Johnson v. University of Southern California

On January 24, 2011, former University of Southern California runningback Stafon Johnson filed a Complaint against the University of Southern California and USC football’s assistant strength and conditioning coach Jamie Yanchar for damages based on negligence.

The incident that is the subject of the action is widely known by sports fans.  It occurred in September 2009 when Johnson was performing reps of 275 pounds on a benchpress in a USC weight room.  Johnson claims that he was working out under the supervision of Jamie Yanchar, one of the named Defendants.  Furthermore, Johnson states that Yanchar failed to properly “spot” him during his benchpress routine.  The media heavily documented Johnson’s severe injury after he was unable to support the weight of the bar, which fell on his neck.

Certainly, as assistant strength and conditioning coach for the football team, Yanchar has a duty to make sure that his players are performing workouts properly.  But did he breach that duty by not properly spotting Johnson during his exercise?  And did he actually fail to properly spot Johnson?  Also, causation may be an issue.  If Yanchar had done anything differently, would Johnson have suffered any less damages?  Or was that bar coming down on his neck no matter what?

One thing that will undoubtedly be considered is the effect that a decision for Johnson may have on liability of trainers.  Lifting 275+ pounds of weight is a risky action no matter how strong the person may be.  Do we want to impose liability for trainers based on the extreme subjectivity of “proper spotting?”

There is no disputing the severe injury to Johnson, including the crushing of his voice box, but putting pity aside, should the university and/or its assistance strength and conditioning coach be blamed for something that was likely the fault of the player for lifting too much weight than he could handle?  Perhaps there is some comparative negligence, and it is likely that the parties settle with the Defendants offering an amount to compensate for a reasonable number that accounts for slight comparative negligence.