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Amateur Sports Injuries – Who’s Liable?

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In many sporting activities, there is only a minor risk of serious injury to the participants. There are, however, instances when a participant in an organized recreational event suffers a more serious injury.

Although many amateur sporting events are organized and administered by volunteers, these volunteers also assume other responsibilities such as coaching teams or officiating during games. One of the most demanding of such responsibilities is the task of providing supervision of these amateur athletes to reduce the possibility of a serious accidental injury. In law, a coach or some other authority having responsibility for the safety of amateur athletes is said to owe a duty to those under his or her supervision.

By way of example, a coach’s duty to his or her players is understood to be any responsibility that 1) is specified in the “rulebook” or some other manual that sets forth the guidelines under how a sport is played and 2) any responsibility that a reasonable person serving in the same capacity would voluntarily accept as being necessary to the safe conduct of those under his or her supervision. If a coach fails to act in such a manner, the coach is said to have breached that duty and may be liable for any injuries or other consequences of that breach.

For many years, the doctrine of  “he who consents cannot receive an injury” was accepted by as a defense against lawsuits filed by participants in organized amateur sporting events. In this defense, defendants such as coaches and officials could argue that an athlete was aware that he or she could be injured as a member of an athletic team that was competing against other teams. Thus, the argument held that since an amateur athlete had voluntarily assumed the risk of participation in athletics the participant had lost the right to file a lawsuit claiming damages for any injuries.

However, over the past decade, many rulings issued in sports accident lawsuits have favored the injured athlete unless it can be clearly demonstrated that 1) the injury could be reasonably expected as a consequence of participation in a sporting activity, 2) the injury occurred as a consequence of some unnecessary violation of an event’s standards of conduct (such as a deliberate “late hit” in a football game), or 3) was due to an act of negligence by the injured participant. 

What many organizers, coaches, and other such officials perceived to be an unfavorable legal climate has lead to the introduction of “waivers” in which a participant specifically released event organizers and officials from liability for any injury that a participant might suffer. 

Many amateur sporting events, particularly those involving distance running (e.g. marathons and “5K” or “10K” run/walk fundraisers) are now closed to those who have not signed a release that absolves the event organizers from liability for any injuries that might occur during the event. A waiver’s legal enforceability varies due to a variety of factors and at least meet the following:

  • The waiver is a necessary condition of participation in a clearly identified event.
  • The waiver provides a clear, nontechnical, description (one that can be understood by a participant) of the risks involved in participating in the event, including any possible injuries.
  • The waiver contains clear statement that the signer is releasing the event organizer or sponsors, as well as any of the organizer’s employees, from any present and future liability arising from negligence by them.
  • The waiver contains an acknowledgment that the signer has read the waiver and is voluntarily participating in the event. 

In general, a waiver can be challenged in court if it is found to be in conflict with an existing statutory law or if it is deemed to have deprived the signer of a fundamental legal right. In particular, a waiver cannot be used as a defense if the plaintiff can show that his or her injury was caused by gross carelessness or negligence on the part of the party being sued. 

So, just because you signed a waiver, does not mean that you are completely without recourse should you be injured.

If you or a loved one has been injured while participating in a sporting event or other activity, contact our offices for a free consultation.   For over 50 years, our staff has worked tirelessly to ensure that our clients receive the compensation and justice they deserve!