Sports Injuries


Claims involving sporting activities have their own unique problems due to the circumstances in which most sports accidents occur.  The usual rules about negligence apply, but often have superimposed on them the additional rules and regulations of the individual sport.

There are three main areas to consider:-

1.      Participants

The usual rules relating to negligence,or even the criminal law, are in effect suspended during certain sporting activities. An obvious example is boxing.  The usual rules relating to assault are suspended because both participants are considered to have volunteered to waive their rights (volenti non fit injuria) so that a boxer who sustains a broken nose will not be able sue for assault or make a claim for a criminal injury compensation.  This suspension of the normal rules would only apply whilst in the boxing ring and if, instead, the boxer starting fighting at the weigh in, then the normal rules would apply just as much as if the fight had occurred in a pub car park after closing hours.

But this ’volunteering’ to give up ones’ rights has its limitations. To use the boxing analogy again, a boxer only consents to being ‘assaulted’ if his opponent complies with the  rules of the sport.  A deliberate punch ‘below the belt’ or after the bell has sounded could be considered outside the rules and if injury results, the offending boxer could face a civil claim. 

The same rules apply to any sporting activity.  Thus, a career ending illegal tackle on a premiership football player could result in a £Million claim.  However, the number of illegal challenges in football is quite high and regarded as an accepted hazard of the game, albeit outside the strict interpretation of the rules, so any such tackle would have to go beyond what could be considered in any way reasonable.  Thus, a sliding tackle might be considered dangerous, but not unreasonable within the context of a professional game, but deliberately stamping on an opponent would probably not avoid sanction.

2.      Match officials and organisers

This area of law is becoming increasingly contentious, particularly in the amateur game where often the only person with any indemnity insurance and, therefore, worth suing, is the match official.  Liability can become an issue even before the players have left the changing room.  Pitch inspections can be particularly controversial, especially when a sports ground is open to the public.  A cursory inspection which failed to detect a broken bottle, which later injured a player, was considered negligent by the Courts and an award for damages was made. Contrast this with another case in which a claimant lost his claim for  an  injury caused by a broken cricket boundary marker, which had been left in the pitch.  The Court, in that case, concluded that a reasonable inspection would not have revealed the broken marker, and so the match official escaped liability.

In high contact sports, such as rugby, the match officials’ decisions can have devastating consequences.  In a colt rugby match, a referee allowed an inexperienced substitute to take the place of the teams injured hooker in the scrum.  The scrum collapsed and the replacement broke his neck causing devastating injuries.  The referee was found liable for not imposing the crouch-touch-pause sequence, which was then applicable to the junior game and later adopted throughout rugby union.

Organisers can also be found liable if they fail to take into consideration for  the safety of spectators.  Motor sports and horse racing are obvious examples where allowing the public too close to the track can have severe consequences, but even the best organised events can end in catastrophe.  The 1991 Australian Grand Prix was marred by the death of a marshal  who was struck by a tyre following a crash between two drivers. A gap in a fence designed to allow marshals on to a track in the event of an accident allowed the tyre through. The courts however have indicated repeatedly that some accidents are just that and provided the organiser took reasonable precautions liability will be avoided.

3.      Children

Particular care has to be taken with sporting activities involving children.  A higher degree of responsibility will attach to organisers and supervisors than would be the case if adults were involved.  This is particularly the case where there is an element of competition.

  Asking  a group 7 year olds to jog from one side of a dance studio to another as part of a pre-dance lesson warm up would not appear to be a particularly hazardous activity. What the teacher in this case failed to consider was that the 7 year olds quickly turned a warm up session into a sprint from one side of the room to the other, with the children slapping their hands onto the walls before turning round and running in the opposite direction.  In this particular case, one of the walls consisted of mirrored glass which eventually shattered on impact, injuring one of the children.  In her defence, the teacher argued that she had never asked the children to touch the walls but, nevertheless, she was found liable because it was entirely foreseeable that a group of young children would act in the way they had.  It is questionable whether the same outcome would have occurred if the participants had been adults.

The Courts have consistently maintained that, provided an organiser can demonstrate sufficient forward planning and a reasonable degree of supervision, then liability will not attach. 

In a notorious case involving a bouncy castle at a children’s party the parents, who organised the event, were successfully sued for allowing a larger child onto the bouncy castle, who clashed heads with a much smaller child, causing devasting injuries.  On appeal, the decision was reversed with the Court of Appeal holding that it is impossible to exclude all risks and that some accidents are inevitable and not as a result of anybody’s ‘fault’.  One of the parents had turned their back momentarily as the accident happened and the Court of Appeal felt that it was far too heavy a burden of supervision to expect the parents to be continually monitoring the bouncy castle.

Tim Quinn

Partner and Head of Litigation at Howard and Over LLP.

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