The Ball is in Your Court

April 17, 2013

Sports Law 101: Negligence

Katharine M. Nohr, J.D.

The most important type of tort to understand in sports risk management and sports law is negligence. Negligence is conduct that falls below a reasonable person standard. In other words, it is the failure to exercise reasonable care that a reasonably prudent person would have in the same or similar circumstances. This standard applies to acts as well as omissions.

There are elements that a plaintiff in a lawsuit has to prove in order for a defendant to be found to be negligent. The four elements of negligence are as follows:
1. Duty or Duty of Care–There is a relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff so that the defendant owes a duty to exercise reasonable care to the plaintiff. This duty could arise out of a relationship, such as between a general manager of a sports team and a spectator. It could arise out of a voluntary assumption of a duty, such as a coach giving a player a ride home from a game. Or, the duty could be imposed by statute, such as a law requiring that spectator’s bags be searched before entering a sports stadium. In these relationships, the defendant has a duty to anticipate foreseeable dangers and take necessary precautions to protect the plaintiff.

2. Breach of Duty–The defendant breached the duty of care that he or she owed to the plaintiff. In other words, did the defendant’s actions or failure to act fall below the standard of care applicable to the given situation? If there is a safety rule that is in place, that rule might be determined to be the standard of care. For example, if there is a rule requiring a soccer field to be inspected for potentially hazardous objects before play can begin, then such inspection may be determined to be the standard of care. If there is no such rule and a standard of care cannot easily be discerned, the question is how a reasonably prudent person would have behaved in the same or similar situation.

3. Proximate Cause–There must be a proximate causal connection between the negligent conduct and the resulting injury. For example: there was a hole in the netting that was designed to protect spectators behind home plate at a baseball stadium. A spectator got hit in the face by a foul ball that went through the hole, causing a serious eye injury. Evidence at trial established that the manager of the stadium knew that the hole in the netting was there, failed to fix it and so the court found that his negligence was the proximate cause of the spectator’s injury. If the court found that the spectator had a pre-existing eye injury and the errant ball was not the cause of her injury, the element of proximate cause would not have been met.

4. Damages–The plaintiff has to suffer an actual injury or damages. If in the previous example, the spectator could not prove that she was injured by the ball that hit her, then the fourth element would not have been met.

In order for your organization to avoid lawsuits alleging negligent behavior, it is best to train employees and volunteers to do their best to exercise reasonable care that a reasonably prudent person would have in the same or similar circumstances.

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