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Sports: Personal Injury vs. Assuming the Risk


There is extensive case law on whether personal injury liability attaches in sports. One side says if a negligent party injures you, the negligent party should be liable under tort law. The other side operates under the idea that people play sports fully aware of the dangers, thus they should be deemed to have assumed the risk of injury and the injurer should not be held liable as a result.

Ultimately, this area of law is very fact sensitive. The outcome of the case will depend on various factors. What sport is being played? If the sport is a contact sport and play tends to be more physical, it will be more difficult to prove that the defendant is culpable, because those who play physical sports like football have to expect a certain amount of contact.

The duty of care to behave like a reasonably prudent person in an ordinary situation usually includes refraining from injuring others. However, the court has considered contact sports an exception to the standard duty of care rule.

Another factors is whether the defendant was negligent or whether the defendant’s conduct rose to the level of reckless behavior? If the defendant was merely negligent, the defendant may only be liable to the plaintiff in a non contact sport. In non contact sports, participants do not anticipate being physically injured. As a result, mere negligence that causes injury to an opponent may be enough to be liable for the opponent’s physical injury.

On the other hand, in a contact sport, mere negligence probably won’t be enough to hold the defendant liable. For example, in softball, considered a contact sport in an Iowa case, a hitter swung the bat and let go of it before it went flying through the air and hit the first base player. Feld v. Borkowski No. 07-133 (Iowa Oct. 22, 2010). The first base player lost the personal injury lawsuit because the court said in contact sports; the defendant’s conduct has to rise to the level of reckless. Id.

If a sport merely charges participants to refrain from reckless or intentional behavior, this court determines the sport to be a contact sport even though the sport may not be very physical.

Other factors may also play a part in the outcome of a sports injury case, including the type of behavior exhibited and whether it is considered normal in the course of the sport, or whether the behavior was outside normal behavior in the sport.

Because this area of law is very nuanced, if you have been injured in the course of playing a sport and are contemplating filing a lawsuit, contact a personal injury attorney. The attorney can analyze the facts of your case and discern whether the facts of your case are in line with successful personal injury cases in this area.