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 her supervision.
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.