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Assumption of Risk in Sports

people playing basketballIn 2013, we posted a blog on the topic of “Primary Assumption of Risk in “Sports” Cases”. This topic sparked much controversy when it was posted over two years ago. And today, this is even more newsworthy. With so many injuries in sports and due to the recent focus in concussions during football, it is no wonder that so many people connect passionately and personally to this debate. We wanted to open up the floor to hear what others had to say about this topic.

What does “assumption of risk” mean?

To fully understand and contribute intelligently to this debate, it is best to first understand what the topic is covering. It all started in 1992, when the Primary Assumption of Risk Doctrine was created. This doctrine states that a person involved in a sporting event cannot hold a co-participant liable for the injuries that they cause.

For example, imagine that Zack and Alex are playing in a football game. If Zack tackles Alex, ending up with Alex having a concussion, Zack cannot be held liable for these injuries, even though he was the one that inflicted them. No matter how bad Alex’s injury is he cannot sue Zack for any form of compensation. This is because, as per the Primary Assumption of Risk Doctrine, when you choose to play a sport, you are assuming the risk of being hurt. When Alex chose to play in the football game, there is an unwritten/unspoken agreement saying that he understands that he is putting himself in danger, or at risk of injury.

These rules even cover when a co-participant violates a rule of the game. In a different example, imagine that Sally and Allison are playing basketball, but Sally fouled Allison, going against the rules of the game and injuring Allison. Even though this is contact is breaking the rules of basketball, it is still covered under the Primary Assumption of Risk Doctrine. Accidents in sports happen, and with the nature of the competition, little rules get broken. So instead of being legally punished, sports have internal penalties, like foul shots, red cards, or suspensions.

However, this does not mean that athletes have full reign during sporting events. The Primary Assumption of Risk Doctrine states that all players have legal liability to refrain from intentionally injuring another participant or engaging in conduct that is so reckless it is outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport. In another example, it is not illegal for a pitcher to accidentally hit a batter with a pitch. With this being said, if the batter decides to charge the mound and beat the pitcher senseless, the batter would probably be legally liable for these injuries and the compensation that may ensue.

And the doctrine applies to spectators who may be in a zone of danger, as well! With this understanding of the doctrine, we can better begin to understand where the debates lie.

What defines a sport?

Because the doctrine covers risk in sports, it also includes a definition of what falls under the term “sport”. The doctrine has defined this as “anything that is done for the enjoyment of thrill, requires physical exertion as well as elements of skill, and involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.”

While this definition exists, it still leaves a lot of details up to interpretation. In fact, even the courts have a hard time distinguishing what makes an activity fall into this category. For example, in the 2001 case Shannon vs. Rhodes, a child was thrown off of the side of a motorboat. And while motor boating and other types of boating can be considered a sport, the court ruled that for this child (who was a passenger), this was more of a form of transportation than sport. To many, this ruling makes sense. However, in 2007, a very similar case ended the opposite way.

In the 2007 Truong vs. Nguyen case, there was a passenger riding on the back of a wave runner. This case ruled that the passenger was engaging in a sport, meaning that the operator was not liable as per the Primary Assumption of Risk Doctrine. This ruling stated that the passenger needed to physically hold on in order to stay on the wave runner. The court’s reasoning was that this means that they were exerting themselves physically, therefore classifying it as a sport.

With this ruling, many people began to question the ruling from the Shannon case. If just holding on makes something a sport, couldn’t it be argued that the child on the motorboat needed to hold on?

What do you think defines a sport? When should someone be held liable for the injuries that they inflict, and when does someone assume the inherent risk of participating?

Do you agree with the presence of this doctrine?

We have heard from many people that believe this doctrine is unfair, or maybe too broad, while many people support it. Some even argue that if a person inflicts an injury onto another person, no matter the circumstance, that person is liable. Some say the standard rules of negligence should apply.

The counterargument is that if the doctrine was removed, sports would not be the same as they are today. If every athlete had to worry about being sued for any unintentional (or intentional) injury that they cause, every sport would become more timid, changing the sporting world as a whole. But this is only one side.

What do you think would happen if this doctrine was removed?

Tell us where you stand.

At Heiting & Irwin, we want to hear your view of this debate. Even though the doctrine is in place now, this does not mean that it has to be this way forever. Laws can change, so we would like to hear feedback about what the public would like to see happen in the future, or what they would like to stay the same.

Tell us your thoughts! You can leave a comment on the blog on our website, post on our Facebook page, or even tweet at us. At Heiting & Irwin your thoughts and opinions are important to us. Reach out to us today.

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