Sports and Assumption of the Risk

The doctrine of assumption of the risk is a complete defense, meaning it is a complete bar from recovery for the plaintiff when invoked successfully by the defendant. It is used when a plaintiff alleges that a defendant’s negligence was the source of plaintiff’s injury and the defendant answers that plaintiff engaged in the risk at one’s own peril. More specifically, the doctrine of Assumption of the Risk has three elements:

  1. The Injured Party had knowledge of the risk of the danger;
  2. The Injured Party appreciated that risk;
  3. The Injured Party voluntarily confronted the risk of danger.

The doctrine presumes that because the plaintiff’s injury was caused by a known and appreciated risk, undertaken voluntarily via participation in the sport, the plaintiff should have known that injury was a distinct possibility. It would therefore be unfair to leave defendant vulnerable to liability for merely also participating in the same sport. In other words, the law recognizes that, certain human endeavors, like playing sports, carrying certain well-known risks, and those injuries related to playing sports properly and within the confines of the rules should not end up becoming actionable lawsuits.

Here’s an example of how the assumption of risk doctrine may be invoked:

The pitcher winds up towards home and the runner at first takes off for second base, attempting to steal the base. The catcher gathers the pitch and throws to his shortstop that is covering the bag. The base runner slides hard into second trying to beat the throw, but the shortstop has stepped between the base and the runner in the attempt to field the throw. The players collide. The base runner beat the throw, but is hurt. The base runner’s leg has been broken on the slide along with the collision with the shortstop.

On this particular play, stealing second came at a high price – a broken leg for the base runner. He’s probably less than pleased with the shortstop covering the bag, which in the course of trying to make a play caused the collision. But does the base runner have an actionable lawsuit for his injuries?

The answer is almost certainly, No.

Generally, when a participant takes a sports field, the participant is aware that, in the course of playing the game, injury is a distinct possibility. In other words, the participant assumes the risks associated with playing that sport, or participating in that activity.

In our example above, with the base runner with the broken leg, the injury occurred in the normal course of playing the game of baseball. If the base runner did try to sue the shortstop, the shortstop could use the assumption of the risk as a defense, arguing that the base runner knew the risks involved in playing baseball, appreciated those risks, and did so voluntarily. This would bar the base runner from recovery.

One argument that the base runner could try to make is that the shortstop acted either intentionally or recklessly, and as a result, the base runner suffered a broken leg. From the limited facts above, this would most assuredly be rejected by the court because the shortstop was merely acting as expected, trying to field the catcher’s throw and make a play that has happened countless times in the game of baseball.

However, not every instance that happens on the field is free from potential liability. If, say, the close play at second ended in hard feelings, where the shortstop, mad about the hard slide, made a fist and sucker punched the base runner, causing serious injury,this act is quite clearly outside the scope of the game.The base runner would then have an actionable suit against the shortstop.

Taking the field means certain risks are assumed and that all players are exposed to the risks associated with the particular sport of activity. But it does not free players from all civil, or even criminal, liability if acting intentionally or recklessly outside of the scope of how the sport is normally played.

Finally, it should be noted that, when injuries happen, on the sports field or otherwise, insurance companies are often involved some where along the way. If you have been injured or have possibly caused injury to another, you should be mindful of your rights and very careful about answering questions from an insurance company. Your attorney is best suited to answer questions from an insurance company, which has its own motives in managing cases – motives that may not align with your best interests.

Fred Antenberg is an attorney in Columbia, Maryland, who handles personal injury matters in Howard County, Maryland, and surrounding counties. Call Fred at 410-730-4404 for a FREE initial consultation.