Who Is Liable for Injuries Sustained During Amateur Sports?
The end of winter usually signals the beginning of outdoor sports such
as baseball, soccer, and bicycle racing. In many such sporting activities,
there is only a minor risk of serious injury to the participants. There
are, however, instances when a participant in an organized recreational
event suffers a more serious injury. In this post our sports accident
injury lawyer will discuss the concept of liability on the part of sporting
event organizers/sponsors for injuries suffered during recreational sports.
Duties of event organizers/sponsors
Although many amateur sporting events are organized and administered by
volunteers, these volunteers also assume other responsibilities such as
coaching teams or officiating during games. One of the most demanding
of such responsibilities is the task of providing supervision of these
amateur athletes to reduce the possibility of a serious accidental injury.
In law, a coach or some other authority having responsibility for the
safety of amateur athletes is said to owe a duty to those under his or
By way of example, a coach’s duty to his or her players is understood
to be any responsibility that 1) is specified in the “rulebook”
or some other manual that sets forth the guidelines under how a sport
is played and 2) any responsibility that a reasonable person serving in
the same capacity would voluntarily accept as being necessary to the safe
conduct of those under his or her supervision. If a coach fails to act
in such a manner, the coach is said to have breached that duty and may
be liable for any injuries or other consequences of that breach.
Assumption of risk
For many years, the doctrine of
olenti non fit injuria (“he who consents cannot receive an injury”) was accepted
by the courts as a defense against lawsuits filed by participants in organized
amateur sporting events. In this defense, defendants such as coaches and
officials could argue that an athlete was aware that he or she could be
injured as a member of an athletic team that was competing against other
teams. Thus, the argument held that since an amateur athlete had voluntarily
assumed the risk of participation in athletics the participant had lost
the right to file a lawsuit claiming damages for any injuries.
Waivers and assumption of risk
Beginning in the mid to late 1970s, American courts began to adopt a more
liberal position regarding the civil liability of sporting event organizers/sponsors.
Currently, many rulings issued in sports accident lawsuits have favored
the injured athlete unless it can be clearly demonstrated that 1) the
injury could be reasonably expected as a consequence of participation
in a sporting activity, 2) the injury occurred as a consequence of some
unnecessary violation of an event’s standards of conduct (such as
a deliberate “late hit” in a football game), or 3) was due
to an act of negligence by the injured participant.
In response to what many organizers, coaches, and other such officials
perceived to be an unfavorable legal climate, such groups and individuals
began to seek some form of legal protection against personal liability
for injuries received by the athletes under their supervision. These protections
included 1) lobbying state legislatures to secure the passage of laws
that either eliminated personal liability of event organizers and/or officials
and 2) the introduction of “waivers” or similar documents
in which a participant specifically released event organizers and officials
from liability for any injury that a participant might suffer.
Attempts at having a law that specifically limited the personal liability
of organizers and officials of non-professional sporting events were largely
ineffective. The introduction of signed waivers that released organizers
from personal liability was far more successful.
Many amateur sporting events, particularly those involving distance running
(e.g. marathons and “5K” or “10K” run/walk fundraisers)
are now closed to those who have not signed a release that absolves the
event organizers from liability for any injuries that might occur during
the event. Although the legal enforceability of such releases varies from
state to state, courts have generally held that waivers are valid only if:
- The waiver is a necessary condition of participation in a clearly identified event.
- The waiver provides a clear, nontechnical, description (one that can be
understood by a participant) of the risks involved in participating in
the event, including any possible injuries.
- The waiver contains clear statement that the signer is releasing the event
organizer or sponsors, as well as any of the organizer’s employees,
from any present and future liability arising from negligence by them.
- The waiver contains an acknowledgment that the signer has read the waiver
and is voluntarily participating in the event.
Can a signed waiver or a release be contested in court?
The answer to the question posed above is “yes, but with qualifications.”
In general, a release can be challenged if it is found to be in conflict
with an existing statutory law or if it is deemed to have deprived the
signer of a fundamental legal right. In particular, a release cannot be
used as a defense if the plaintiff can show that his or her injury was
caused by gross carelessness or negligence on the part of the party being sued.
Anyone who believes that their signed release or waiver document is unfairly
limiting their right to recover damages that were caused by the negligence
of the party named in the release should contact a personal injury attorney
to discuss the options that may be available to secure their right to
compensation for their injuries.