07/18/05 — Appeals court rules Rosewood coach can be sued

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Appeals court rules Rosewood coach can be sued

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on July 18, 2005 1:52 PM

The state Court of Appeals ruled last week that the wrestling coach at Rosewood High School can be sued in federal court for violating the constitutional rights of a former student during an alleged 2001 hazing incident.

That decision will also allow a 2-year-old court case charging the Wayne County school system with negligence to move forward.

James and Deborah Meeker are suing Coach William Edmundson and the Wayne County School Board over the alleged abuse of their son, Bob.

Olivia Pierce, a spokesman for the school system, said it is system's policy not to comment on pending litigation.

The Meeker's complaint alleges that when Meeker was a freshman wrestler at Rosewood, Edmundson "initiated and encouraged" members of the wrestling team to harass their son.

In federal court last year, Edmundson claimed that he had "qualified immunity" and couldn't be prosecuted on the constitutional rights violation. Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that Edmundson did not have immunity, and it was that decision that went to the Court of Appeals. The charges against the school could not proceed until the appellate court made its decision.

"Judge Boyle said that if what Meeker was alleging was true, then it got around the immunity, because it would shock the conscious of any objective observer," said lawyer Glenn Barfield, who is representing the Meekers.

The complaint states that at least two team members restrained Meeker while other teammates pulled up or removed his clothing and took turns "repeatedly beating his bare torso" until it turned red. Meeker received such beatings, sometimes referred to as "red bellies," at least 25 times during the time he was a member of the team, the suit alleges.

The complaint also alleges that Edmundson used the beatings as "his sole means of discipline" and as a way to force an unwanted member to quit the team.

Court documents assert that Edmundson told Meeker that the beatings would continue until he toughened up. The suit also says that the coach prevented disclosure of the abuse by "intimidation and retaliation, including more ... severe beatings."

Meeker eventually brought a tool to school for protection, which led to his suspension and reassignment to another school.

The appellate court said Meeker's complaint clearly alleges "facts sufficient to proceed with the case."

Edmundson had said the Meeker's complaint should be dismissed because he had "no constitutional duty to protect Bob (Meeker) from harm by third parties."

The court said this was a "seemingly deliberate misunderstanding of Meeker's complaint, and a repeated misreading of case law," Barfield said.

"It is crystal clear that if Meeker can prove, as he alleges, that Coach Edmundson instituted, permitted, endorsed, encouraged and facilitated the beatings, Edmundson cannot escape liability simply because he did not administer the beatings with his own hands," wrote Judge Diana Motz.

Barfield said the original case, filed in state court, didn't include the charges of violating Meeker's constitutional rights.