Paralyzed Pop Warner Football Player Sues League Claiming Head-first Tackling Instruction Led to Injury

Fund established to help provide youth with handicapped-accessible bathroom

SEATTLE – Hagens Berman, a national plaintiff-rights law firm, today filed a lawsuit on behalf of former Pop Warner football player Donnovan Hill and his mother Crystal Dixon, claiming the league insisted Hill use improper and dangerous tackling techniques which left the now 16-year-old paralyzed from the neck down.

The suit claims that Pop Warner, its affiliates, Hill’s coaches, and members of the Lakewood Pop Warner board of directors are liable for the coaches’ repeated and incorrect instruction that Hill and his teammates tackle opposing players by leading with the head, rather than placing the head on the outside of the opposing player, as directed in national Pop Warner rules and coaching materials.

Hill was injured on Nov. 6, 2011, during a championship game in Laguna Hills, Calif. The lawsuit claims that Hill tackled the other team’s ball carrier with his head down during the third quarter while on defense – an incorrect and dangerous method not only banned by Pop Warner but also prohibited at all levels of football.

“We intend to show that the coaches of this team ignored every coaching guide – and frankly common sense – in the way they required their players to tackle,” said Rob Carey, partner at Hagens Berman and attorney for Donnovan and his mother. “Instructing a child to lead a tackle with his head or to spear a player with his helmet is almost beyond comprehension with what we know about the risks.”

The 39-page complaint states that Hill and other teammates repeatedly cited physical discomfort and raised safety concerns with the head coach about the improper tackling technique, but were rebuffed, and coaching to lead with the head continued unabated.

Film footage of the game shows Hill consistently making tackles with his head down, according to the complaint. At the moment of injury, Hill’s body went limp after making contact with another player while attempting a tackle with his head down. Doctors at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center later determined that Hill suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury, resulting in quadriplegia.

The lawsuit, filed on March 6, 2014, in the Superior Court of California, details allegations that Hill and his teammates were instructed by Pop Warner team coaches to tackle opposing players by leading with the head, a practice known as “face tackling” or “spearing.” Pop Warner’s rules specifically prohibit the technique, according to the complaint.

“We plan to introduce evidence that the coaches of this team directly, emphatically, and repeatedly ordered their players to face-tackle, knowing that it was in violation of Pop Warner guidelines and was a hazardous technique,” Carey said. “We suspect that this practice may be more widespread, and hope that this case will put a quick end to the practice.”

The complaint includes claims against directors and officers for gross negligence, citing that members of the Orange Empire Conference and Lakewood Pop Warner board of directors have failed to implement and oversee proper protocol to ensure Pop Warner entities’ rules and safety procedures are maintained and enforced.

The suit claims that Hill’s coaches repeatedly saw him unsafely tackle opponents head-first in both practices and games but did not attempt to correct his technique.

The complaint alleges that Pop Warner and its affiliate entities are also responsible for Hill’s injury for failure to properly train and supervise its coaches. According to the suit, Hill’s head coach did not complete a required coaching course, yet was allowed to continue coaching.

Hagens Berman attorneys are asking the court to award damages, including punitive damages, to the maximum extent allowable by law.

The tragic incident has sparked the creation of a fund to help ease and improve the life of Donnovan Hill, who now struggles to perform day-to-day activities. Hagens Berman has established an online donation fund at at and is seeking ways to aid the family through items such as an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) bathroom.

More information regarding this case can be found at /cases/pop-warner.

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About Hagens Berman
Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a consumer-rights class-action law firm with offices in nine cities. The firm has been named to the National Law Journal’s Plaintiffs’ Hot List seven times. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.

Ashley Klann
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