Trial lawyer Guy Kornblum, who specializes in bad faith insurance claims, provides an overview for injured sports players and fans. Whether you are a professional athlete or a recreational player, injuries are common in sports. Does the law offer any recourse?
General Rule – No Injury Liability
In many cases, you will not be able to hold anyone else liable for an injury you suffered while participating in amateur or recreational sports activities. Injuries are an accepted risk of playing amateur sports, so bringing a successful personal injury claim is very difficult, if not impossible. But there are a few scenarios that might trigger the legal liability of another participant in the sport or the liability of a third party.
Assumed Risk of Injury in Sports
The legal doctrine of “assumption of the risk” bars you from trying to hold fellow participants or property/facility owners liable when you are injured while playing a sport or game, as long as the circumstances that led to your injury were inherent to — or at least reasonably related to — the sport. The idea behind “assumption of the risk” in this context is that, by agreeing to participate in the sport or activity, you’ve also agreed to assume the possibility that you’ll be injured.
So, if you blow out your knee playing Ultimate Frisbee or get a concussion in a pick-up game of tackle football, you probably can’t hold anyone else liable for those injuries.
Injury Caused by “Unreasonable” Behavior
If your injury was the result of unreasonably aggressive behavior on the part of another participant — you’re playing basketball and the guy you’re guarding punches you in the face because he doesn’t like the way you play defense — assumption of risk wouldn’t bar you from pursuing an intentional tort lawsuit against the person who hit you.
Injuries Caused by Equipment Failure
Also, if your injury was caused by (or made worse by) sports equipment or some other product that was defective or didn’t perform the way it was supposed to under the circumstances, you may be able to bring a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer.
For example, if the head of a golf club detaches mid-swing and strikes someone in the temple causing permanent brain injury, the manufacturer of the golf club may be held liable for damages.
Injuries at Sports Facilities
Injuries at stadiums and sports facilities tend to fall into two categories: 1) standard premises liability injuries such as slip and falls or trip and falls, and 2) injuries that occur when a fan at a sports event is hit by a ball or a puck. When a guest is injured, who is on the legal hook? Can the owner be sued? Do fans assume the risk and lose the right to a personal injury lawsuit? Read on to find out.
Slip and Falls at a Stadium or Sports Facility
Simply because you slipped and fell does not mean that the owner was negligent. Further, simply because the floor was slippery does not mean that the owner was negligent. The floor had to have been unreasonably slippery. Then, in order to prove that the stadium owner was negligent, you must prove that the owner knew or should reasonably have known that the floor was unreasonably slippery, and failed to take steps to fix the problem.
Proving Negligence of a Stadium Owner in a Slip and Fall Case
Let’s take a not uncommon example of a slippery condition at a sports stadium — a wet floor in a bathroom. Everyone who has ever been to a stadium has probably seen a soaking wet bathroom floor at least once.
Wet bathroom floors can be slippery and hazardous, and fans have fallen in stadium bathrooms. But not all slippery conditions in stadium bathrooms involve negligence.
For example, if someone drops a big cup of water (or even two cups) on the floor, and you slip on the water two minutes later, the stadium owner would probably prevail in a lawsuit. There is no negligence in this situation for two reasons: 1) because one or two cupfuls of water on the floor is probably not an unreasonably slippery condition, and 2) even if it was an unreasonably slippery condition, the stadium owner had no reasonable opportunity to learn about the condition and clean it up in those two minutes.
Now let’s consider an example where a slippery bathroom floor would be a negligent condition. Let’s say that the bathroom floor has two inches of water on it because drunk fans constantly put paper towels in the sinks and leave the water running so that the sinks all overflow onto the floor. Let’s say that this happens game after game.
In this type of situation, the stadium owner has reasonable notice that the bathroom floors are constantly slippery. In this situation, a person who slips on the bathroom floor can make a reasonable argument that the stadium owner knew or should have known that the bathroom floors were always slippery, and that the owner should have done something about it.
Injuries That Occur When a Fan is Hit by a Ball or Puck
Another not uncommon occurrence at a baseball or hockey stadium is a fan getting hit by a ball or puck, and some of these injuries can be severe.
What are the fan’s legal rights? If you turn over your ticket to the sports event, you will see a paragraph or two of legal language in extremely small print. This is the stadium owner’s attempted disclaimer of legal responsibility for any injuries that might occur to fans at the stadium. The disclaimer will usually say something like balls, pucks, and even players occasionally leave the field of play, that the balls or pucks might be traveling at high speeds, and that the fan assumes the risk of injury from any balls, pucks, or players that leave the field of play.
How Valid is a Disclaimer?
Let’s say that you get hit by a foul ball at a baseball game. Is this disclaimer really valid? While every state’s law is different, these disclaimers are valid, with exceptions.
The stadium owner still has an obligation to act reasonably to minimize the risk of injury to spectators. That is why all baseball stadiums have netting behind home plate to protect against foul balls. The netting is behind home plate because balls that are fouled straight back are going so fast, and the spectators are so close, that a spectator could not reasonably get out of the way. However, although home run balls also leave the field of play, there is no netting in the outfield because the balls are not traveling as fast and because the spectators in the outfield seats have had four or five seconds to track the ball traveling toward them.
If you get hit by a foul ball while sitting between home plate and first base, you might be able to make an argument that the netting was not large enough, depending on exactly where you were sitting. The stadium industry has standards for how far away from home plate the netting should extend. If the stadium that you were injured at did not meet those standards, you may have a legal case against the stadium owner.
Another example where the disclaimer might not hold up is if you were sitting behind home plate and a foul ball went through a hole in the netting. In this situation, you could argue that the stadium owner was negligent in its upkeep of the netting.
Looking for more information on this subject? Read Mr. Kornblum’s article about waivers.
Mr. Kornblum also offers an Injured Victims Handbook, which outlines the basic process of seeking damages for injuries if you are a victim of wrongdoing. There are 12 chapters which are in layman’s terms and which will outline issues you will need to understand if you have been injured or there has been a death of a loved one and you are seeking compensation from the wrongdoer.
If you want a copy, email be at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call either of our offices at 415 440-7800 for San Francisco, or 707-544-9006. We can email you a copy or send you a hard copy. I think you will find it very informative. There is nothing else like it out there that I am aware of for injured victims.