The Assumption of Risk in Sports Law

January 18, 2016
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The assumption of risk

Whether it’s Paul George’s leg snapping against a basketball hoop stanchion or Henrik Lundqvist’s neck taking the full force of a slap shot, injuries are an unfortunate part of sports. For this reason the doctrine of the assumption of risk can be applied to sports of all sorts to defend against legal action from injured participants.

The doctrine stems from the fact that when an individual participates in a sport, there is typically an inherent risk in the activity. For example, if someone were to join a game of football that person is playing the game with the assumed understanding that he or she could get hurt throughout the course of play. Numerous New York cases have clearly illustrated this doctrine.

The doctrine of assumption of risk in court

For example, Safon v. Bellmore-Merrick Cent. High School District was decided in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff was at an after-school lacrosse practice and running toward the goal when his foot hit the base of it, twisting his ankle. The court decided that the plaintiff had assumed the risk involved with practicing lacrosse, and that the goal was clearly visible, absolving the defendant of any responsibility for the injury.

Similarly, it can be assumed that Lundqvist was aware that he may get struck by a hockey puck, and subsequently hurt, while playing goalie in the NHL. There was little legal recourse for the Swedish goalie in that situation.

In addition, a New York case, Spiteri v. Bisson, sets the precedent that the doctrine also applies to spectators. The plaintiff in this case was jogging near or on a field where the boys lacrosse team was warming up. She was struck by a lacrosse ball thrown by one of the boys practicing. The court decided that when someone enters the vicinity of the playing field the doctrine of primary assumption of risk may also apply to this individual.

How the doctrine may protect from legal action

There is a chance that this interpretation of the doctrine could be applied if Ellie Day had decided to sue the NBA or Lebron James after the Cleveland Cavaliers player crashed on top of her in pursuit of the basketball during a game. Her courtside seat put her at risk, and as a result if she were to pursue legal action there is a good chance that James and the league would have been protected under the doctrine. Day assumed the risk of injury when she sat so close to the court, in proximity of the game.

Assumption of risk can apply to all sorts of situations, but is applicable to sports due to the risk of injury when someone plays football, basketball, hockey, baseball or any other athletic activity. While in some cases this assumption is expressed through a signed documents, in sports it is typically implied. 

The doctrine of assumption of risk protects sports leagues, athletes and similar organizations from legal action when individuals are injured in the process of playing a sport or while in proximity of the game. If a party has taken legal action against you, but you feel you are protected by the doctrine, contact an experienced sports law attorney for more information. Similarly, if you’ve been hurt and would like to check whether the doctrine applies to your situation, speak with a sports law attorney.