If a player is injured by another they may have a damages claim against both the individual and their club. A foul may be deliberate, which may be treated as analogous to an assault or through a negligent accident, but in both cases the injured player may have a claim for damages against both the player and their employer.
However, because of the inherent risks of injury involved in professional sports, the question arises: At what point does an injury caused by one player go from being an expected and accepted risk of the game to being one which someone else can be held liable for? This is particularly important where the injury causes the player to no longer be able to play, and to lose what otherwise looked like a bright future.
To establish liability you must show:
- That a duty of care was owed;
- That there was an act by another which caused harm; and
- That this act was either deliberate or negligent, dropping below the standard of acceptable conduct.
In a lawful sports competition, all participants owe a duty of care to each other. In Caldwell v Maguire it was stated that the
...duty is to exercise in the course of the contest all care that is objectively reasonable in the prevailing circumstances for the avoidance of infliction of injury to such fellow contestants.
It is often hard to determine whether or not an act felt outwith the duty of care, particularly where you are considering whether or not a move on a sport pitch was negligent. The test in Scotland to establish whether or not the act was negligent was stated in the 2007 case of Sharpe v Highland and Islands Fire Board by Lord Johnston as
...whether or not the competitor in question has committed an error of judgment that a reasonable competitor being a reasonable man of the sporting world would not have made.
In order to show that there was a negligent or deliberate act which caused injury the Court may rely on a variety of witnesses to provide evidence including referees, participants and expert witnesses. Claimants have also successfully used video footage from professional football matches.
A game of two halves
It may be a matter of fine judgement to decide which way the court will lean. It will consider the act in question against what a reasonable person with similar level of experience and knowledge would be expected to do in those circumstances.
In Caldwell a number of factors were identified:
- The object of the sport;
- The demands made upon its contestants;
- The inherent dangers of the sport;
- The rules, conventions and customs of the sport; and
- The standard skills and judgement reasonably to be expected of a contestant.
Later cases have also distinguished between players at different levels and what conduct is reasonable based on their experience and skill level.
So, a tackle causing head or neck injuries in a rugby match may be considered as an inherent and accepted risk but amount to an assault in a football game. Ultimately, the court's objective is to take into account all relevant circumstances and factors and come to a decision based on that.
Club liable for player
Both the player and his club may be found liable. In Gravil v Carrol, a rugby club was vicariously liable for an injury caused by a violent act during a rugby union game by one of their players. The court noted that fighting was common in the sport and the fight therefore could be said to have occurred in the ordinary course of the players duties during the game. A fracas between table tennis opponents during a competition on the other hand would be unlikely to be treated the same way.
In one of the worst and most widely publicised incidents in a football match, in the semi-final of the 1982 World Cup French player Patrick Battiston broke clear and only had West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher to beat. Instead of trying to defend the shot, Schumacher appeared to jump directly at Battiston, and collided with his head in mid-air. Battiston was knocked unconscious, and later slipped into a coma. He lost three front teeth and suffered damaged neck vertebrae. Emergency paramedics administered oxygen on the pitch. Michel Platini later said that he thought that Battiston had died, because "he had no pulse." No sanction of any sort was issued to the goalkeeper at the time and many believe the terrible injuries and lack of action against the goalkeeper led to Germany winning the match.
The approach of the law has altered since then and perhaps now a similar wrongdoer could expect to face both a civil damages claim and even criminal prosecution in the UK.