Safety in sport

Many sports and recreational activities have inherent risks and dangers.  It is inevitable that injuries amongst participants will occur.  Negligence in sport accounts for a large number of legal cases.  Sports participants, officials, members and the association itself can be held legally liable (responsible) for negligent conduct that causes harm to another person.  In some cases a person may also be liable for the negligent act of another person, even though the first person did not know about the negligent act.

To establish liability in negligence for sports related injuries, the general principles of the law of negligence apply.  

Legally, a person's (the defendant’s) conduct is only negligent if it is found the person owed the injured person (the plaintiff) a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty of care, the damage (injury) was caused by that breach and that it was reasonably foreseeable to the ordinary person that the damage was a potential result of the breach. 

Each of these four elements must be present for liability to be established. 

Participants

It is established law that participants such as players, have a duty of care to other participants.  The standard of care is measured in terms of the 'reasonable person' test.  Participants are expected to behave in a reasonable and careful manner with the knowledge and skills of a participant in that situation.  If the person's behaviour falls below the standard required, the person may be said to be negligent.  This objective standard of care may be modified due to the inherent risks of a sport that participants are aware of and accept.  The standard is modified to suit the sport.  For instance, lawn bowls and tennis carry few risks compared with sports such as rugby, hockey and soccer.

A number of factors may be taken into account when determining whether a person acted as a reasonable participant.  These include the age of the participant, the nature of the sport, the level at which the sport is played, the sporting rules, the circumstances in which the sport is played, the likelihood of an injury occurring and the likely seriousness of potential injuries.

Participants are generally taken to have voluntarily accepted and consented to the risks inherent in a particular sport.  This includes the risk of injury that might arise from minor or expected breaches of the rules of that sport.

However, they do not consent to unacceptable and non-inherent risks and unnecessary dangerous play.

Participants are expected to play within the rules of the sport and any safety requirements.

Where participants infringe safety rules and regulations to a significant degree, their behaviour may amount to negligence.  Whether an act is negligent or not is determined by the facts.

In contact sports, participants consent to physical contact by voluntarily playing the sport.  If a player is injured as a result of physical contact that occurs within the rules of the game or as a result of minor or expected breaches of the rules, then the conduct is not negligent.

However, if the physical contact is dangerous, reckless or outside the type of physical contact associated with the sport, the conduct may amount to negligence. For example, punching is an inherent part of boxing but is unlawful in a game of soccer.  Unlawful physical contact in a sport can also give rise to a conviction for criminal assault and battery.  Again, whether an act is negligent will be determined on the facts of each case.

Coaches and referees

Coaches and referees owe a duty of care to participants in sports activities.  The reasonable person standard of care applies to both coaches and referees.  They are expected to do what a reasonably competent coach or referee would do in that position.  Some of the coach's duties may extend to the activities they teach and to the safety of participants.  They are expected to provide reasonable supervision and ensure that participants are properly instructed in the rules of the activity and safety requirements.  Likewise, some of the referee's duties may extend to ensuring that games are played within the rules and enforcing safety regulations.

Spectators

Spectators and bystanders are also exposed to risks at sporting events.  A sports association, officials and participants have a duty to take reasonable care not to injure or cause injury to spectators or bystanders.

Spectators and bystanders could be injured in a variety of ways such as by stray golf balls and cricket balls, racing cars leaving the track and crashing into the spectator area, errant horses, faulty equipment, grandstands collapsing and unruly behaviour.

A sporting association may be held liable for injuries to spectators if they have failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of spectators or bystanders.  For a spectator or bystander to succeed in a negligence claim against the association, the four elements mentioned above must be proved.  The injured person will need to prove that the risk was reasonably foreseeable and that reasonable steps were not taken to protect spectators or bystanders.  In most cases involving sports events, the risks are reasonably foreseeable and the association and organisers must ensure that they take the necessary steps to protect spectators and bystanders.  The law also takes a pragmatic view in some matters.  For example, a spectator who is standing on the sideline at a football match and is hit by the football is unlikely to succeed in a negligence claim.  They are taken to have accepted the risk inherent in standing on the sideline.

It is also important for these sorts of associations to have public liability insurance.