Last month in Paris, there was the unfortunate incident where a spectator at The 2018 Ryder Cup lost her sight in one eye after she was struck by a wayward tee shot from a competing player. We now live in a more litigious society, so it was no surprise to see it reported that the injured woman was seeking legal advice in the aftermath. It remains to be seen what the outcome of any claim will be, but it is a stark reminder that sporting events and sports clubs are under increasing scrutiny to ensure that they fully meet the duties which they owe to players and spectators alike.
The same laws affect sports clubs regardless of their size and resources. A Sunday league football team, for example, could be just as liable for causing or failing to prevent injury to a player as a Scottish Premiership football team. So it is important that every club, regardless of their size, is aware of its duties and responsibilities and the steps it can take to minimise exposure to potential liability.
Establishing liability for an accident which occurs on the field of play is not always straightforward. As with any litigated case, independent, skilled witness evidence is likely to carry the greatest weight with the court. Categorising certain behaviour can be a tricky issue which is why a specific sports-related incident cannot be viewed in isolation, and thought must be given to the sporting context within which it occurred.
Contact sports, such as football or rugby, involve a duty of care amongst participants and a claim of a breach of that duty must be more serious than an error of judgement. When considering whether the alleged negligent actions amount to a breach of duty attracting liability, the conduct of the player would be considered – was what the football or rugby player did reasonable? Consideration would also be given to the particular sporting environment in which the incident occurred. Indeed, it is not always the individual directly responsible for any injury who is open to being sued. Players, clubs or referees could all find themselves in danger of being subjected to legal action. Sports governing bodies may also find themselves involved, for example where the rules they have approved for the sport are under scrutiny.
Sports clubs should not dismiss or underestimate the importance of carrying out regular health and safety checks and risk assessments, as well as keeping up to date with maintenance and repairs whenever possible. Where an incident does occur it is important to have a robust system of accident investigation and reporting in place. Carrying out enquiries along these lines in the immediate aftermath of an incident can prove invaluable longer term, as often claims for damages are not initiated until months or years following an incident.
In Scotland, cases concerning these types of injury have, to date, been few and far between, and historically most of those raised have settled out of court. But, with a growing number of sportsmen and women participating in team sports for clubs at amateur and professional level, and an increasingly claim conscious general public, it is not unreasonable to expect to see an increase in this type of case coming before the courts in Scotland in the future.