Angry Parents Take School Coaches to Court

ByABC News via logo

Aug. 7, 2003 -- When his 16-year-old son didn't get the most valuable player award, Michel Croteau didn't get upset. He hired a lawyer and sued his son's youth hockey league to the tune of more than $200,000.

Croteau, from New Brunswick, Canada, said his son, Steve, had the most goals and assists in the league, and thus should have gotten the award. When he wasn't named MVP, Steve was so "humiliated" that he no longer wanted to play hockey, his father said.

The Croteaus are not alone. In the last year, parents have filed more than 200 non-injury-related sports lawsuits against coaches, leagues and school districts in the United States, according to Gil Fried, a University of New Haven professor who specializes in sports law.

Why take the coach to court? Parents of children playing sports are as litigious as anyone else, Herb Appenzeller, author of From the Gym to the Jury, told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.

"They pretty much mirror society today. Everybody feels that if they are wronged, they need compensation," Appenzeller said. "We have a lot of cases where people think their son or daughter should be on varsity, and when they are put on JV team, they sue."

A Proliferation of Lawsuits

The Butzke family sued the Comsewogue, N.Y., school district because their eighth-grade daughter was taken off the varsity high school soccer team.

The Branco family took legal action against the Washington Township, N.J., school district after their son, David, was cut from the junior varsity basketball team.

Such lawsuits have put coaches and schools under unprecedented scrutiny.

"The problem is we have had a proliferation of lawsuits. We have more today than we have ever had," Appenzeller said. "It puts coaches and athletic administrators and school officials on the defensive."

NBA Career Chances Dashed?

The Rubin family sued California's New Haven Unified School District for $1.5 million because their son got kicked off the varsity basketball team. The son said he backs his family's march to court on his behalf.

"They have to do what they have to do," Jawaan Rubin said. "As long as I am playing basketball again, that is all I care about."

The family felt James Logan High School Coach Blake Chong may have cost their son not just a scholarship, but an NBA career. But experts say it's difficult to prove such an allegation.

"I think the courts are basically going to say time and time again, 'That's speculation, you can't prove he would have made it in college or even would have gotten a scholarship,' " Appenzeller said. "So we are having those cases, [though] they don't seem to have much success when they go to court."

Marc Martinez sued his son's baseball coach, John Emme, twice. Both suits were dismissed, but now Emme has taken the offensive. He is countersuing both Martinez and his attorney, claiming malicious prosecution.

Sue and Countersue

Martinez first sued his son's coach in July 2001, a few months after Emme took J.D. Martinez off the varsity baseball team at Corona del Mar High in Newport Beach, Calif. Martinez believed the coach ruined his son's chances of earning a college scholarship out of spite, because Martinez had told the school district he felt the coach was having his son throw too many pitches and thus was putting him at risk for injury.

Having J.D. play for another baseball team was not an option he considered, because he felt the coach was at fault, Martinez said.

"He's [Emme] the one who did the malicious act and threatened to keep my son from playing baseball in college just to get even with me," Martinez said. "Why should my son change [teams]?"

But the 39-year-old coach, who denies all the charges, said he was stunned by the lawsuit, the first he had ever faced.

"I was completely shocked," said Emme, a former college baseball player who has coached for 10 years. "I never thought it would get to this."

‘The Terminator’ of Lawsuits?

Each time he reads the assertions he is incredulous, and he denies them all, Emme said.

"I'm really looking forward to getting Dr. Martinez under oath so we can find out what I really did," Emme said. He said coaches from around the community have encouraged him to pursue action against Martinez.

But Martinez said he has also gotten backing for his lawsuits, from other parents of players on the team. He said the first lawsuit was dropped only because Emme refused to release score books and statistics, and because he didn't want J.D. to be written into the lawsuit. His son, who has now graduated, is planning to try out for a college team as a pitcher.

Emme's lawyer said they filed a lawsuit because to make a point to parents around the country.

"Dr. Martinez is like 'the Terminator.' He just wouldn't stop," said Emme's attorney, David Shores. "We got one suit thrown out, and he came back with another. … We want other parents around the country to stop suing coaches."