Participating in any sport entails the risk of being injured. In 2006, for example, more than 1.4 million sports injuries occurred in just five team sports (basketball, football, baseball, softball, and soccer). More than 250 high school athletes died participating in sports between 1982 and 2002. More than half of all sports injuries occur at practice. To a large extent, injuries are a normal, foreseeable and unavoidable part of athletic competition and each athlete accepts the normal risks of his or her sport.
Sometimes, however, an injury results from unusual risks that the athlete cannot be regarded as having accepted. While a football player can foresee the possibility of injury from being tackled, he neither expects, nor consents to another player intentionally injuring him. Likewise, while golf naturally entails a risk of being hit by a flying ball, a golfer is entitled to expect the course to be laid out to minimize that risk and need not anticipate the course owner’s negligent failure to erect screens where balls hit by golfers playing one hole are likely to rain down on golfers playing a different hole.
For such unusual injuries, which arise not from the natural risks of the game but from the negligent or intentional conduct of other participants, coaches or facility owners, the injured athlete may have a legal claim for damages. On the other hand, when determining whether an injured athlete has a valid claim, a court will also take into account society’s countervailing interest in encouraging athletes and coaches to play hard, without fear of being sued. It is a delicate balance.
Injuries caused by other athletes.
The Massachusetts courts recognize that, although we want to encourage vigorous competition, “some of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete on to the playing field…. Reasonable controls should exist to protect the players and the game.” Like many other states, Massachusetts law allows an athlete injured by another player to recover damages only upon a showing that the other player’s conduct was more than merely a rule violation, and more than ordinary negligence (a lack of reasonable care under the circumstances). Instead, the defendant player must have acted with reckless disregard for safety (or intent to injure). Conduct is reckless where the actor knowingly disregards an unreasonable risk that his conduct is very likely to result in harm to another person. While a person may be negligent due to his or her failure to appreciate a risk of harm, reckless conduct requires that the risk be known but disregarded. Thus, the courts set the bar quite high when an athlete attempts to sue another player.
Notably, the recklessness standard applies to all levels of competition, from a child’s game of kickball to a professional sporting event. It also applies not just to contact sports, where a player impliedly consents to an increased risk of injury, but also to non-contact sports like golf. It even applies where the participants are engaged in a consensual recreational activity that lacks defined rules or customs.
However, the recklessness rule does not govern cases where the injury, though occurring in the general context of a sporting event, does not arise from the sport itself. For example, one court has held that where two golfers were traveling between holes in a golf cart, and the negligence of one caused the other to fall out of the cart, the injured golfer’s lawsuit against the golf cart driver was governed by the less demanding ordinary negligence standard, not recklessness, because driving a golf cart is not an essential part of the sport of golf.
Suits against coaches or the schools that employ them.
Injured athletes may attempt to sue their own coach for negligent training, supervision or choice of protective equipment, among other things. The athlete might also assert a claim against the school that employs the coach or against an opposing team’s coach for allowing the other team’s players to play too aggressively.
If the coach is employed by a public school or public college, then the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”) renders the coach a, public employee, immune from suit. The school or college, however, as the public employer, can be sued, subject to damage limits set forth in the MTCA and perhaps also the limitation on damages against a charitable institution. Suits against private schools and colleges, and the coaches they employ, are not subject to those limitations. However, a Massachusetts statute protects from suit any coach, manager, umpire or referee who as a volunteer (without pay) works in a sports program serving children 18 or younger. A Little League baseball coach is a good example. Such a volunteer coach can only be sued for intentional or grossly negligent misconduct, not for simple negligent failure to exercise reasonable care.
A claim against the coach of an opposing team is difficult to maintain. To hold such a coach liable for injury inflicted by one of his players, the plaintiff athlete must show that the coach had some reason (such as a prior incident) to expect his player to engage in violence, or that the coach instructed or encouraged the player to do so. A coach will not be held liable based simply on his aggressive coaching demeanor during the game unless the plaintiff is able to show that the coach’s conduct was reckless. Nor will a coach be held liable based only on a failure to remove from the game a player who was breaking the rules and later injures the plaintiff athlete. It is the referee’s responsibility to police the game.
Many, in fact the majority of, sports related injuries occur during practices rather than games. The Massachusetts courts have shown a willingness to allow claims by injured athletes against their own coaches or the schools/colleges that employ them. In one case, the Appeals Court affirmed a trial court jury verdict awarding damages to an MIT pole vaulter who, after being injured in a bad landing from a practice vault, sued the university, the pole vaulting coach and the overall track and field coach, alleging that they had not provided a properly designed cushioned landing pit, had not properly trained, instructed or supervised his practice, and had not provided him with the proper equipment. The Court upheld the verdict noting that the accident was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant coaches.
In another case, a University of Massachusetts cheerleader sued her coach and the university after she was injured in a fall during cheerleading practice, claiming that the coach was negligent in failing to properly assess her and her team’s preparedness for the difficult stunt, and in failing to adequately instruct them about the stunt and about proper spotting technique. Although the Court held that the coach was immune as a public employee under the MTCA, the cCurt denied the university’s motion for summary judgment on the claims against it, allowing those claims to proceed to trial. The Court rejected the university’s assertion that its liability should be governed by the recklessness standard applicable to an athlete’s claims against other players. It noted that the rationale for that heightened standard (not chilling competition with the fear of liability) did not apply to the cheerleader’s suit because the injuries had occurred during practice rather than competition and that even if there had been a competition, the supervision which the coaches should have provided would not have interfered with that competition.
Athlete claims against the owners of sporting facilities.
In addition to other players and coaches, an injured athlete may recover damages from the owner of the sporting facility if some defect in the facility caused or contributed to the accident. Because the owner’s conduct is not part of the game itself, the injured athlete need only prove simple negligence, not recklessness, to prevail. In a case where an injured golfer claimed the course owner should have erected a screen to protect golfers in an area particularly likely to expose them to flying balls, the Court explained that “A participant in a game or sport who is familiar with the game or sport assumes the risk of the hazards normally involved….But unreasonable risks are not assumed by the mere fact of participation. One may rely to some extent on the obligation of the owner to keep his premises in a reasonably safe condition for those using it.” A similar rule has been applied to the owner of a roller rink. In addition, a Massachusetts Superior Court held that claims by a triathlon participant against the race director, alleging that the director had negligently laid out the bicycling course, warranted a trail. The Court also indicated that the plaintiff athlete could sue the national body that sanctioned triathlons for ordinary negligence, and did not need to prove reckless conduct, but held that the sectioning body had not, in fact, been negligent.
Clearly, a person’s status as an athlete participating in competition or practice alters in some respects the duty of care owed to him by other persons, especially other players. Yet an injured athlete retains the right to recover damages for that unusual breed of injuries which result not from the natural risks of the game but from the negligent or intentional conduct of other participants, coaches or facility owners. Sound legal advice is required in order to determine whether the facts surrounding a particular injury entitle the athlete to compensation.
 Based on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). http://www.scientificpsychic.com/fitness/sport_injuries.html.
 National Center for Sports Safety, http://www.sportssafety.org/sports-injury-facts/.