Johnson v. USC, Yanchar: Why I’ll Never Spot Anyone Ever Again

Photo credit: Patrick Crawley/Neon Tommy

Earlier today, former Trojans running back Stafon Johnson filed a lawsuit against the University of Southern California and former assistant strength and conditioning coach, Jamie Yanchar, who now holds a similar position with the Seattle Seahawks. Because I’m a geek when it comes to legal stuff,I downloaded a copy of the complaint that Johnson and his lawyers filed and read the brief from start to finish in an attempt to paint a detailed picture of the situation. For those of you with an interest in reading the document, you can download it from TMZ.com by clicking here. For those of you who don’t give two craps about legalese, let me give you the SparkNotes version…

Johnson said that on September 28, 2009, he was lifting weights with the rest of the football team. He was on the bench press, and then assistant strength and conditioning coach Jamie Yanchar was to “spot” him. Johnson alleged that Yanchar was distracted–basically, that Yanchar had his attention on some other players in the room–and because Yanchar was distracted, Yanchar could bumped into the bar and caused the bar to slip from Johnson’s hands down to Johnson’s neck. We all know what happened after that (hospital, inspirational helmet stickers, loving tweets, etc.).

Johnson sued USC and Yanchar for negligence and is attempting to get paid for the pain and suffering that he experienced, for all his medical-related expenses, for the loss of earnings and loss of earning capacity that resulted, for the costs of the lawsuit, and for any interest on all of the aforementioned dollars as allowed by law.

Now, let’s get to the good stuff. Does Johnson have a strong case?

In my opinion (I’m not a lawyer, but law school is in my future), he has a decent case that I think he could win, but will likely be settled long before a trial would ever happen. There are four elements of negligence, so let me briefly explain what they are and how Johnson could argue each one….

1. Duty of Care

Simply put, this means that Yanchar had a responsibility in relation to Johnson. In this case, Yanchar had established that he would “spot” Johnson and ensure that Johnson could perform the lifts correctly, or at least safely. After all, isn’t that the purpose of a spotter? Furthermore, he was the assistant strength and conditioning coach, someone with authority and expertise.

2. Breach of Duty of Care

This basically asks whether Yanchar violated his duty/responsibility during the incident. If the facts as given in Johnson’s complaint are true, I would say “yes” to this component of negligence. According to Johnson, Yanchar’s attention was on other players in the weight room, not on Johnson, the bar, or Johnson’s soon-to-be bench press. As a result of his lack of attention, Yanchar bumped into the bar, which then fell out of Johnson’s hands and onto Johnson’s neck.

3. Causation

This is the most difficult part of negligence to prove. This posits whether, as a result of Yanchar not paying attention and bumping the bar, Johnson suffered the injury. I think the key to this part is the fact that Yanchar bumped the bar, thereby jarring it loose from Johnson’s grip. Had Yanchar not bumped the bar, Johnson probably would not have dropped it onto his own neck. This part of the discussion could go on for hours, so I’ll cut it off there.

4. Damages

This is straightforward.  For one, Johnson just has to provide a medical bill.

So, there you have it. A condensed version of the lawsuit and its components. Go sound smart amongst your friends.

(Update: Johnson is on record having said: “This lawsuit has not reduced in any way my love for the cardinal and gold.” Great.)

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9 responses to “Johnson v. USC, Yanchar: Why I’ll Never Spot Anyone Ever Again

  1. Hey Nate, just stumbled on your post here. Unfortunately, I’ve done some work with Johnson’s attorneys and they are very well regarded members of the plaintiff’s bar here in LA. I don’t know the particular facts of the situation too well, but they wouldn’t take the case if they didn’t feel good about winning it. Apparently USC has rebuffed settlement demands from Johnson’s team, which forced this lawsuit — but I would be very surprised to see this make it to trial. The filing of the complaint is more gamesmanship than anything else. Expect a confidential settlement in this one, and probably pretty soon.

    Diggin the blog, by the way!

  2. Thanks for reading/responding, Jeff! Nice to have some insight from someone with a legal background.

    I just read, about five minutes ago and after I had published this post, that a private settlement has pretty much been agreed to, but that details would not be released. No surprise and just like you called it. Anything other than a quick, private settlement would have been a PR disaster for USC considering all of the trouble they have dealt with this past year.

    By the way, I noticed you “unfortunately” had to do some work with Johnson’s lawyers–I apologize.

  3. Ha! I didn’t mean unfortunately in that I had to work with them; I meant unfortunately for USC, since they’re good lawyers.

  4. I’m an athlete at USC and we have physical exams and then a sign liability waiver before we are cleared to work out. It basically says any injury we sustain is our fault and not the universities. I think it will be difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Yanchar was distracted and knocked the bar from his hands. Unless there are fellow team mates/trainers who are willing to testify otherwise.

  5. Thanks for reading/commenting, Michael. What sport do you play at SC? Fight On and thanks for representing the school.

    As for liability waivers, there is a misconception in society that those things shift all liability away from one party to another. The fact is, it really depends on the state and the particular situation. From what I’ve learned in undergraduate law classes, it is very, very difficult to effectively waive all liability when you participate in an activity. There are lots of possible ways to rule a waiver unenforceable (in a legal sense).

    Ultimately, like Jeff (UCLA Law) said above, it is very unlikely that Johnson’s lawyers would have taken the case had they not had a strong chance at winning or least coming out with a nice settlement.

  6. I play tennis. I would not be surprised if he lawyers have ways to twist and turn the terms and conditions of a liability waiver. However, I can only assume USC will use it in their defense, as it seems really clear and cut that we as athletes are basically unknowingly signing away ALL responsibility. I could not find a student-athlete waiver, but here’s what the Lyon Centers looks like, which is identical to what we sign. http://img46.imageshack.us/i/screenshot20110125at832.png/

    It’s sad for everyone in the end, Stafon had a bad ankle injury and USC got the book thrown at them for what happend with Reggie Bush. Stafon decides to sue now his NFL career is up in the air. And for 25k? He must be struggling…

  7. I used to work at the Lyon Center and I remember having to explain that to people who were about to sign it! Haha.

    Yeah it definitely is an unfortunate situation for all parties involved. The thing that’s interesting about Stafon suing for lost earnings is that the injury did not appear to affect his ability to play football at the next level. Sure, he went undrafted. But he made an NFL roster (Titans) and the only reason why he did not play in the regular season is because he hurt his ankle and was placed on injured reserve. He’s still technically with the team, but just not on the active roster. So it’s not like he blew out his leg in the USC weight room and could never play football ever again. Very interesting.

    By the way, my old roommate and good friend used to be on the tennis team. I still have my 7th man t-shirt.

  8. We have a 7th man match tomorrow against FSU! I couldn’t guess who it might be…Rob? Kaes? Chase?

  9. His name was Taylor. Only played one year because of a nasty Achilles injury. I remember having all of those other guys around, though.

    Should be a good match against FSU. But I have no doubt you guys will defend the house.

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