One Strike and You’re Out: Lightning on the Playing Field

July 13, 2011

Katharine M. Nohr, Esq.
Nohr Sports Risk Management, LLC

On September 1, 2009, the Associated Press headline, “Lightning Strike Causes Amputation”, referred to Danish soccer player Jonathan Richter’s unfortunate injury arising out of a brief thunder storm on July 20th while he was playing a reserve game. The 24 year old athlete had to undergo an induced coma for 10 days and then suffered the amputation of his lower left leg. This recent incident dramatically illustrates the danger that lightning strikes pose to athletes during practices and competitions held outdoors. The National Weather Service estimates that in the United States, the earth is struck by lightning approximately 25 million times per year. Considering this frequency, it is no wonder that in 2008, there were 28 deaths that resulted from lightning strikes.

The most recent reported appellate court decision regarding a lightning strike was probably that of Sall v. T’s, Inc., 136 P.3d 471 (Kan. 2006), which involved a golfer, through his parents, filing a lawsuit against a golf course for injuries sustained as a result of being struck by lightning on a golf course. The Kansas Supreme Court held that a golf course owed a duty of care to protect golfers from harm caused by lightning strikes on a golf course. The Court determined that there was a material issue of fact as to whether the golf course negligently performed the duty that it assumed to monitor the weather conditions and warn the golfers to come in off the golf course and so summary judgment was not appropriate. The Court noted that the golf course’s procedure was to do the following: 1) monitor weather through broadcasts on television, radio and Internet reports; 2) personnel went outside to visually inspect the weather; 3) golfers were warned by use of an air horn to come off the golf course during poor weather conditions; and 4) golfers were informed through signage what they should do in case of inclement weather.

The above illustrates not only that serious injuries or death can arise out of lightning strikes, but that your organization can be sued and possibly be found negligent if an athlete or a patron of your facility is injured or killed as a result of such a lightning strike. If your organization operates or manages any sport or recreation program that is played in an open area (swimming, boating, fishing or golf – all activities that are associated with lightning strikes), then you should make sure that you have established procedures of warning, and protecting patrons, employees and volunteers during lightning storms.
Although your organization probably already has a lightning and severe weather risk management plan in place, it is important to regularly evaluate and monitor such plan. You may need to revise it regularly as changes occur in your organization. As personnel and volunteers change, training should be provided so that everyone in your organization not only knows the procedures, but can implement them. Consider the following tips:

  1. Monitor the weather conditions.
  2. Train coaches and staff to recognize nearby lightning activity and the distance of the lightning in order to identify whether there is potential danger.
  3. Establish procedures and signage in order to warn of lightning danger.
  4. Establish criteria for evacuation and resumption of play.
  5. Develop an evacuation plan.
  6.  Instruct personnel about the evacuation plan.
  7. Practice the evacuation plan.
  8.  Monitor the plan and make changes where necessary.

Would the soccer player mentioned above have been spared leg amputation if the above procedures were in place? Possibly. Developing, implementing and consistently following a sound lightning warning and evacuation plan makes good business sense.
a) In areas prone to frequent lightning strikes, some Universities have installed a lightning detection or lightning prediction system (e.g. ThorGuard; Skyscan).
b) There is still debate on closing indoor pools when lightning is predicted (or happening). To review both sides of this argument, search underpools; lightning.

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