Regardless of the degree to which Americans love the game of football, there is no denying the serious risk of injury associated with the game. But when does the risk of injury on the gridiron or any athletic field result in legal liability? Typically, an injured athlete that is looking to file suit will do so under a theory of negligence.
As a general rule in all personal injury law suits, the plaintiff has the burden of showing the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, that duty was breached, the defendant’s breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and the plaintiff was actually injured. However, due to the inherent violent nature of athletics, courts have formed an exception to this ordinary care standard. As such, coaches, players, and athletic administrators are not liable for any injury that results from an inherent risk associated with the sport. Therefore, liability will only be found when there is a showing of recklessness, or an intentional act, that is outside the scope of the inherent risks of an athletic contest. For example, in Nabonzy v. Barnhill, during a soccer match, a forward kicked the goal keeper in the head while he had possession of the ball. Witnesses testified that the goal keeper had secured possession of the ball and the forward had time to avoid any contact. However, the forward proceeded to strike the keeper in the head with his foot, causing permanent brain damage. The court ruled that the forward’s conduct was deliberate, willful, and with reckless disregard for the safety of the goal keeper. Consequently, the forward was liable for the goal keeper’s injuries.
The relevance of the doctrine of assumption of risk depends on whether it is clear that the person assuming the risk had actual knowledge of the danger and an appreciation of its character. In the context of team sports, it has been acknowledged that, although a participant will generally be held to assume the risk of unintentional injuries suffered at the hands of an opponent or other participant,the participant should not be held to assume the risk that an injury will be inflicted intentionally or as the result of reckless disregard for his safety.
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