Case-by-Case Analysis Required for Sports-Related Personal Injury Cases
The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides that participants engaged in a sport or recreational activity consent to risks that are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the activity. Under this analysis, the duty of an owner of a sporting venue is limited to exercising the care necessary to make conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, the participant has consented to them and the owner has performed its duty. For example, injuries resulting from fatigue, being hit by a passed ball in lacrosse, and being struck by a ball during a baseball game are risks which participants are legally deemed to have accepted.
While this doctrine generally provides a complete bar to recovery, there are notable exceptions. For instance, a defendant’s liability will not be alleviated if there are concealed conditions that unreasonably increase risks and create dangerous conditions over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport. A critical component of this analysis is determining whether the injured participant knew of and was able to appreciate the risks involved in the injury-producing activity. Accordingly, cases involving sports-related personal injuries typically require a fact intensive inquiry into the plaintiff’s skill, background, and experience in the activity.
Two recent Appellate Division, Second Department cases demonstrate how the plaintiff’s knowledge and experience involved in the sport factor into each case. In Deserto v. Goshen Cent. Sch., a high school varsity athlete was injured during a football game when he was tackled out of bounds and struck his head on a steel plate covering a pole vault pit. See 2017 NY Slip Op 06058 (2d Dep’t 2017). The Second Department affirmed the trial court’s order which denied the defendant school district’s motion for summary judgment. The Court held that there was a triable issue of fact as to whether the placement of the steel plate in the vicinity of the playing field unreasonably increased the risk of injury to the participants.
In contrast, Siegel v. Albertus Magnus High Sch., involved a volunteer baseball coach who was injured when he slipped and fell on a cream colored tile that was covering a metal drainage grate in the grass. See 2017 NY Slip Op 05991 (2d Dep’t 2017). The Court noted that the assumption of risk doctrine encompasses risks associated with the construction of the playing field, and any open and obvious conditions on it. Therefore, despite the fact that the coach testified that he never noticed the tile before he slipped on it, the Court held that, based on his experience and knowledge of the baseball field, he should have been aware of the open and obvious condition. Specifically, the Court noted that the plaintiff had visited the field on multiple occasions, had sat along the third-base foul line, and had served as an assistant coach for five years prior to the accident. Significantly, New York does not require that the participant foresee the exact manner in which the injury occurred, so long as the participant was aware of the mechanism from which the injury results. Because the Court determined that the coach should have been aware of the condition, the defendant high school was dismissed from the action.
These decisions demonstrate that each sporting injury case may involve a factual inquiry. However, it may be desirable for defendants to seek dismissal at the onset of litigation if the plaintiff is an experienced athlete and the risks of the injury-producing activity were obvious.
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