The very nature of sport entices participants with the lure of competition, physical and mental challenge, and the pursuit of excellence, but success goes hand in hand with training and the potential for injury. While most injuries result from our own participation and the inherent risks of the sport, occasionally they are the result of one participant’s failure to take reasonable care for another participant’s or a co-participant’s safety. In such cases, liability for the injuries may rest with a coach, supervisor, teacher, association, club, event organizer, or facility.
Civil liability for sports injuries falls under tort law. A tort can be described as a civil wrong which warrants compensation. Torts may be deliberate acts of the defendant, or they may be the result of negligence. In the case of negligence, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant breached the duty of care owed to the participant. The duty of care can be generally described as the duty to take reasonable steps to avoid foreseeable harm (J. Barnes, Sports and the Law in Canada). Coaches, volunteers, and organizers who are under a duty to ensure the reasonable safety and supervision of participants involved in sporting activities may rely on two defences:
- voluntary assumption of risk
- contributory negligence to eliminate or reduce their alleged liability .
Voluntary assumption of risk argues that the participant voluntarily assumed the risk of injury (see For The Thrill Of One’s Life p 27). The defence of contributory negligence comes into play where it is established that the conduct of the participant was unreasonable or dangerous in the circumstances and contributed to the injuries sustained. Not only do defendants have a duty to reasonably prevent foreseeable injury, participants are under the same duty to prevent injury.
Ultimately, a negligent defendant will be liable to a participant for the injury sustained if the participant can establish that to themselves (L.N. Klar, Tort Law).
- the defendant owed a duty of care to the participant,
- the defendant failed to meet the requisite standard of care required in the circumstances,
- the defendant’s conduct caused the injury; and
- the injury was reasonably foreseeable.
J. Barnes, in Sports and the Law in Canada, stated in relation to coaches and supervisors that such individuals are under a duty to provide “ …competent instruction in technique or skills and must take reasonable precautions to reduce unnecessary danger in the general organization of the activity”. Barnes suggests coaches generally have duties and responsibilities in the following areas: facilities and organization; instruction and supervision; and medical care.
Coaching Duties and Responsibilities
I. Facilities and Organization
- selecting premises which are safe and suitable for the activity
- inspection of facilities and equipment to ensure the fitting and efficiency of equipment
- maintenance of written records to evidence a system of review or maintenance would be prudent
II. Instruction and Supervision
- adequate control and supervision of activities is required
- warnings respecting dangerous activities should be given
- staff and assistants assigned to specific tasks should be qualified to deal with the tasks
- competent, informed instruction must be provided
- in some cases demonstration of activities may be required
- exercises should be assigned with respect to age, ability, fitness level and stage of advancement
- progressive training and the use of reasonable technique are required
- risks associated with certain activities should be explained
- group activities should be organized according to size, weight, skill or fitness level
- participants with special needs or disabilities should be given particular attention
- special attention should be given to participants experiencing difficulty with particular skills a system of safety and instruction must be operational and written records of attendance, training and teaching methods would be prudent
III. Medical Care
- participation should be prohibited where illness may be a factor leading to injury
- suitable first aid should be provided while waiting for medical assistance to arrive
Having considered the general liability principles relating to sports injuries, we now examine how these principles are applied to a particular situation. One of the leading cases on instructors’ liability is Smith v. Horizon Aero Sports Ltd., 1981 involving a participant rendered paraplegic after falling from a tree where she landed during her first parachute jump. The jump was performed under the supervision of the company offering the course, Horizon Aero, and her instructor. A certified instructor provided a four hour lesson. Prior to jumping and while in the plane, the instructor had observed signs of anxiety on the part of the participant. The plaintiff claimed that parachute-controlling techniques had not been adequately taught and greater supervision was required considering the anxiety of beginning jumpers. The defendants pleaded contributory negligence and relied on a hold harmless agreement which the plaintiff had signed.
The British Columbia Supreme Court found the plaintiff 30% contributorily negligent for her injuries for failing to resolve any uncertainties prior to the jump. The duty of care of the defendants was held to be high since the situation involved an inexperienced participant, the magnitude of the risk was high, and the degree of harm that could be expected if the risk materialized was also high. The instructor and the company were held to be negligent for failing to use reasonable care to teach and test her understanding of parachute control, failing to supervise the jump by not challenging her understanding when it was clear she was alarmed in the aircraft, and for failing to familiarize her with the drop zone.
This case is an example of the duty of care that companies and instructors owe to participants. The duty of care will depend upon the nature of the activity and the inherent risk and degree of harm that could be expected if the risk materialized.the jump. The duty of care of the defendants was held to be high since the situation involved an inexperienced participant, the magnitude of the risk was high, and the degree of harm that could be expected if the risk materialized was also high. The instructor and the company were held to be negligent for failing to use reasonable care to teach and test her understanding of parachute control, failing to supervise the jump by not challenging her understanding when it was clear she was alarmed in the aircraft, and for failing to familiarize her with the drop zone.
The duty of care associated with coaches, volunteer non-profit organizations, and facility owners was recently considered in Blondeau (Litigation guardian of) v. Peterborough (City), 1998. A figure skater caught her pick during a stroking session in a depression in the ice around the area of a goal post hole which resulted in a fractured hip requiring fusion. Post holes left in the ice on the removal of hockey nets required special attention to ensure a smooth skating surface. The Centre did not have an on-ice inspection nor did the club require the ice captain to check the ice or require any written system of checking the ice or recording ice complaints. Coaches were generally aware of the potential problem areas on the ice. The Peterborough Memorial Community Centre (Centre), owners of the facility, the figure skating club, and the coaches who were on the ice at the time of the incident were all found liable.
Finding the Centre 75% liable, the Court acknowledged that there was a duty to ensure a reasonably safe ice surface and that they failed to do a “walk-on” inspection after re-surfacing. The club was found to be 15% liable for failing to set in place any system to record ice problems or to bring the problems to the attention of coaches and skaters. Since there was no inspection by the Centre, the club was under a duty to perform an inspection through its own volunteer ice captain or coaches or request that the Centre perform an inspection. The club could not simply rely on the expectation of a safe ice surface. The coaches, given their concern for safety and knowledge that no inspections were being performed, were held 10% liable for failing to conduct an inspection in the specific area of the goal posts.
While liability in sports may involve coaches, clubs, and facilities, it is not uncommon for one participant to sue another participant. The duty of care a participant owes to a fellow participant will depend upon the nature of the sport and the speed, aggressiveness, and purpose of the activity as understood by the participants (Barnes). In a recent Manitoba decision, St. Laurent v. Bartley 1998, a hockey player who lifted his stick and unintentionally hit the plaintiff in the eye causing a serious eye injury, was found not liable. The Court reasoned, taking into account the aggressiveness of the league and the risks the participants undertook, that although the action attracted a penalty, the conduct did not fall below the standard of the reasonable competitor.
As the cases illustrate, sports injuries occasionally result from the negligent acts of coaches, supervisors, associations, facility owners, and other participants. The standard and level of care owed to participants will depend upon the nature of the sporting activity and each activity’s inherent risks and degree of harm which may result. Where there is a failure to use reasonable care by the defendant, the injured participant may seek compensation from the wrongdoer for their tortious acts. Whether the wrongdoer is a co-participant, the owner of a facility, a non-profit organization or a volunteer coach, the law imposes a duty of care to ensure the overall safety of sports participants.