With studies now showing that “sudden cardiac arrest” is one of the leading causes of death for young people under the age of 25 and student-athletes at a greater risk due to more frequent physical exertion, school districts have been looking for ways to protect student-athletes from physical harm and to reduce potential legal liability. A new law now addresses this issue.

In the fall of 2016, the California legislature enacted the Eric Paredes Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act (AB 1639), named after a 15-year old student-athlete who died from a sudden cardiac arrest. AB 1639 mandates that school districts meet certain requirements to address student athletes with suspected heart ailments. The law is effective July 1, 2017 and is partially based upon a codification of current California Interscholastic Federation (“CIF”) Bylaws 22.B.9 and 503. The new provisions of law may be found in Education Code sections 33479 to 33479.9.

Education Code Section 33479.5 provides that a student-athlete “who passes out or faints while participating or immediately following an athletic activity, or who is known to have passed out or fainted while participating in or immediately following an athletic activity, shall be removed from participation at that time by the athletic director, coach, athletic trainer, or authorized person.” A student-athlete who otherwise exhibits other known symptoms of sudden cardiac during an athletic activity may also be removed from participation by an athletic trainer or other authorized person if it is reasonably believed that the symptoms are cardiac-related. A student-athlete who has been removed from play under this section may then only return to play after being evaluated and given written clearance to return to participation “by a physician and surgeon or a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant who have been practicing in accordance with standardized procedures or protocols developed by the supervising physician and surgeon”.

Section 33479.2 mandates that the California Department of Education post on its Internet website certain guidelines, videos, and other relevant materials to inform and educate students and parents and to train coaches about the nature and warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest and the risks associated with continuing to play or practice with known symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest. School districts will be required to send all students participating in CIF-governed sports a sudden cardiac arrest information sheet every school year. (Ed. Code § 33479.3.)

Coaches will be required to complete a sudden cardiac arrest training course and retake the training course every two years thereafter. (Ed. Code § 33479.6(a).) On or after July 1, 2019, coaches violating this training requirement will be suspended from coaching until completion of the required training. (Ed. Code § 33479.6(b).)

Be aware that a physician’s written medical clearance of a student-athlete to return to play does not remove the district’s responsibility to make sure the athlete is ready to actually participate in his or her sport. Athletes who previously exhibited sudden cardiac arrest symptoms should be closely monitored and evaluated by nursing staff and trainers to make sure they remain symptom free before permitting them to participate in sporting activities.

Recommendation

Student-athletes who are found to have sudden cardiac arrest symptoms must be evaluated and released by a specified medical professional prior to returning to participate in their sports. In addition to providing annual informational notices to their student-athletes and required training for coaches, school districts should establish procedures and a protocol on how to recognize, evaluate, and monitor sudden cardiac arrest symptoms when they occur in athletic activities and how to evaluate and monitor the student athletes after they are medically cleared to verify that there are no recurrent symptoms. Thorough documentation of annual informational notices, coaches’ training, and monitoring of student-athletes will be important not only in keeping athletes safe but also in reducing a district’s risk of liability for unanticipated cardiac events.