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Jury finds Great Neck H.S. baseball coach negligent

Great Neck North High School student Ben Herskowitz

Great Neck North High School student Ben Herskowitz at court on Thursday. (November 12, 2009) Photo Credit: Karen Wiles Stabile

The varsity baseball coach at Great Neck North High School failed to follow sound coaching practices, and that negligence was a significant factor in a hand injury to a freshman player during batting practice in the spring of 2007, a Nassau County civil jury decided Thursday.

In a mixed verdict, however, the six-person jury found that coach Michael Lewis did not act recklessly in the episode involving Benjamin Herskowitz, now 17, of Great Neck. That was the more serious accusation against the coach.

Herskowitz said that about two days after he complained to his high school principal about one of Lewis' policies, the coach threw three pitches in a row at his head during batting practice.

The first one hit him in the chest, Herskowitz said. The second sailed over the top of his head. And the third hit his left hand, causing a serious fracture that later required surgery, Herskowitz said.

"There is no question he was trying to hit me," said Herskowitz, who stopped playing baseball after that year.

Lewis, who still is Great Neck North High School's varsity baseball coach, denied during the trial that the episode occurred.

The case now moves on to the liability phase, which will determine whether Lewis and the Great Neck School District must pay Herskowitz damages.

Robert Krause of Uniondale, a lawyer for Lewis and the school district, said negligence by Lewis is not enough to hold the coach or the school district liable. State Supreme Court Justice Edward McCarty will decide that issue at a later date.

Krause said Lewis has not had other complaints filed against him and his employment status will not be affected by the verdict.

Herskowitz said the chain of events started in April 2007, when Lewis told the players that they had to attend summer practices or they would not be allowed to try out for the varsity team the following year.

Herskowitz, who was one of only a few freshman on the team at the time, already had a summer job lined up at a real estate office and knew that he would not be able to attend summer practices, he said Thursday.

The next time he saw the principal in the hallway, Herskowitz mentioned his problem with attending summer practice. The next day, Herskowitz said, Lewis asked him with obvious annoyance why he had gone to the principal with his problem.

The day after that, Lewis hit him with the pitches, he said.

Krause said Lewis denied Herskowitz's story, beginning with the assertion that summer practice was mandatory. He said Lewis never would have thrown a ball at Herskowitz intentionally and did not do it even by accident.

One of Herskowitz's friends testified at trial that he saw the pitches hit Herskowitz, lawyers said.

Herskowitz's lawyer, Russell Corker of Mineola, called the jury's verdict a victory. "This is a rare case where a young person is matched against an adult where the young person is believed," he said.

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