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The Wild World of Sports: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Defeat, The Possibility of a Lawsuit

On any given day, tens of millions of American adults and children engage in some form of scholastic, recreational, or leisure sport. From the backyard badminton game, to Little League, to company softball teams, amateur competitive sports are an integral part of modern American life. However, it is a fact that competitive sports can lead to injuries, and any activity that leads to injuries inevitably leads to lawsuits. Amateur competitive sports are not insulated from this reality of modern life.

In the lawsuits that arise from sports injuries, the questions of duty, responsibility and liability swirl around every person, on and off the playing field. Surprisingly, the answers to those questions are not well-defined. Rapidly evolving case law and the growing legal sensitivity of those who take part in sports make it essential that every amateur or recreational athlete, coach and game official clearly understand the basic legal principles that determine liability in amateur sports.

One of the most common targets of lawsuits by injured players is the coach of the team or the adult supervising the athletic activity. In the overwhelming majority of cases, liability is imposed not because the coach caused the injury but because the coach failed to prevent the injury from occurring. Simply put, a coach has a legal duty to organize, instruct, supervise and work with his or her players so as to take every reasonable and prudent step to prevent injury. Once an injury does occur, a coach has a legal duty to evaluate the injury and provide appropriate first aid.

It is important to note that these legal duties often apply with equal force to unpaid, untrained volunteers as well as paid coaches. Think very carefully before volunteering to coach youth sports. Make sure you know how to teach safety as well as scoring, and always err on the side of preventing injury. If training for coaches in your sport is available, get it. Also make sure the league or sporting organization with which you are involved has liability insurance to cover its coaches. Most professionals routinely recommend at least $1 million in liability coverage. If an apparently serious injury does occur call 911 immediately and let trained medical professionals administer first aid. After the athlete has been cared for, document everything that led up to the accident. Do not rely on the customary "Accident Report Form" or memory. Years later, in the midst of a lawsuit, memories will have faded and a one-page accident report will have critical gaps in its description of events.

The past two decades have seen the emergence of two new areas of sports liability: lawsuits between participants in the sport and actions against officials administering the rules of the game. Recently, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued two important decisions in this area.

The first decision, Santopietro v. New Haven, involved an injury to a spectator. Court decisions involving spectators suing the players or the operators of a sports arena when they were struck by balls, pucks or other objects go back many years. In fact, there is a 1924 decision reported in a lawsuit against a Boston Red Sox pitcher whose errant throw to third base struck a spectator. The only thing special about that case was the pitcher: George Herman "Babe" Ruth. The Sox lost the game but won the lawsuit.

The Santopietro case was somewhat different. The lawsuit was brought against two umpires of a softball game, alleging that their failure to maintain control of the game and the players led to a thrown bat striking a spectator in the head, causing a skull fracture. The umpires prevailed at the trial, and the injured spectator appealed. In its review of the case, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed that umpires have a duty to enforce the rules, exercise reasonable judgment and maintain control of the game to prevent risk of injury to others, including spectators. In other words, if a game official fails to adequately enforce the rules, and that failure leads directly to injury of another person by a game participant, the official may be held liable.

The second decision, Jaworski v. Kiernan, involved a lawsuit brought by one soccer player against another for an injury that occurred during an adult coed soccer game. The injured player alleged that the player who caused her injury was negligent in that he hit her and tripped her from behind, violating the established rules of the game which were designed to prevent contact and causing a serious injury to her knee. The injured player also alleged that the conduct of her opponent was "reckless and intentional."

At trial, the jury found for the injured player, deciding that the player who caused the injury was negligent but that his conduct was not intentional or reckless. On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the decision, establishing the rule that, in order for one player to recover from another player for injuries that occurred during an athletic contest, the action "must be predicated on recklessness, and not mere negligence." While this rule is not new, the manner in which the Connecticut Supreme Court explored and explained the public policy reasons for such a rule has generated a great deal of comment and approval from other courts and commentators.

First, the Court examined the "normal expectations" of a person who engages in a sport:

"In athletic competitions, the object obviously is to win. In games, particularly those played by teams and involving some degree of physical contact, it is reasonable to assume that the competitive spirit of participants will result in some rules violations and injuries."

The Court noted that, on this basis, some courts in other states had adopted a rule that participants in a sport "assume the risk" of injury, and therefore could not bring suit. The Connecticut Supreme Court rejected this approach. However, the Supreme Court also rejected an approach whereby simple negligence--that is, failure to follow the rules--would lead to liability. In a dazzling display of sports sophistication and versatility, the Court commented:

"If simple negligence were adopted as the standard of care, every punter with whom contact is made, every midfielder high sticked, every basketball player fouled, every batter struck by a pitch, and every hockey player tripped would have the ingredients for a lawsuit if injury resulted."

The Connecticut Supreme Court justified its adoption of a recklessness standard by recognizing "a commonsense distinction between excessively harmful conduct and the more routine rough-and-tumble of sports that should occur freely on the playing fields and should not be second-guessed in courtrooms." If an injury results because one participant recklessly and intentionally disregards the established rules of the sport, or recklessly and intentionally disregards the potential for injury to another participant, liability will be imposed. If the injury results because of simple carelessness or because of an ordinary violation of the rules of the game, there will be no liability.

In the end, legal issues should not deter anyone from participating in sports. Nonetheless, it is clear that we are entering an era when legal issues are more important than ever in American amateur sports. Participants need to be aware of their rights, their obligations and their responsibilities. If you have any questions, or if you want more information about this subject, please feel free to call our office.

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