Negligence and Sport

Can sports participants be held liable for negligent acts committed while playing?

It’s not uncommon for injuries to occur to sportsmen and women while playing sport. Unfortunately, the risk of injury is a recognised part of participating in sports and athletics. Some sporting games are low risk, while others are higher risk.

However, some sporting injuries occur as a direct result of negligence, and cannot be attributed to the usual accepted risk of the sport concerned. Where sports injuries are sustained because of someone else’s negligence, a claim may be made for compensation for personal injury.

In some cases, criminal cases may follow a sporting incident that resulted in someone’s injury. For instance, a dangerous tackle in a football match, or a punch thrown in a sporting contest, can result in assault charges. In such instances, the conduct may be deliberate (to cause physical harm). In other cases, it will be negligence.


What is negligence?

The tort of negligence occurs when someone breaches a duty of care they owe to someone else. If this breach of duty results in physical harm or loss to the individual to whom the duty is owed, a negligence claim for compensation may follow. In the sporting context, a duty of care is owed to others in various ways, for instance, in contact sports such as football and rugby, each player owes a duty of care to each other. Clubs and individuals who arrange sporting events have a duty of care to participants and others. Referees and coaches owe a duty of care to their players and clients.

For a negligence claim following sporting injuries to be successful, the following elements must be established:

  • Duty of care
  • This duty was breached
  • The breach of the duty of care caused the damage or injury to the victim

Duty of care

For any claim of negligence to succeed, it must be established that a duty of care was owed by the defendant to the claimant. Essentially, establishing a duty of care in the sporting context requires proving that a relationship existed between the claimant and the defendant.

Generally, a participant in a lawful sporting competition or event owes each other participant a duty of care. This duty of care is to exercise all care that is objectively reasonable in the prevailing circumstances in order to avoid injury to the co-participants.

What is meant by the ‘prevailing circumstances’?

‘Prevailing circumstances’ have been defined as including the object of the sport, the demands made on the contestants, the inherent dangers, the rules of the game or sport, conventions and customs and the standards, skills and judgements reasonably to be expected of the participants.


Establishinga breach of duty of care

Once a duty of care has been established, it must then be shown that this duty has been breached, taking into account the prevailing circumstances of that particular sport. For liability to be proved, there may not necessarily be criminal reckless disregard for the victim’s safety, but it must be something more serious than a mere error of judgement or a lapse of skill.A tackle in a fast-moving game that was the result of a split-second decision in the game has been held to a mere error of judgement not reckless disregard.

Playing Culture of the Sport

Also relevant to establishing a breach of duty of care is the playing culture of the sport, and the relevance of sporting rules. Considering the playing culture of the sport helps the court in establishing whether the defendant’s act or conduct was, in fact, an integral part of playing the game and an inherent risk taken by all the participants in the playing of the sport – or unconnected with the proper playing of the sport, and therefore negligent.

To establish whether the conduct or act went beyond the playing culture of the sport, it must be shown to be an unacceptable means of playing the sport. For example, in a case involving horse riding, careless riding was held to be an inherent danger of professional horse riding and, therefore, an acceptable means of playing the sport.

In football, a foul will often be considered an acceptable means of playing the sport – depending on the nature of the foul. A stamp or a punch will not be considered an acceptable means of playing the sport, but a bad tackle in certain circumstances may be treated as reckless disregard for the victim’s safety. This is a test to be applied on a case by case basis.

Causation and harm

Once a breach of duty of care has been established, it must then be proved that the negligent act caused the personal injury to the claimant. This will be easy to prove in the case of a sporting contest where there is direct contact between the participants.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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