Duty of Care Exists Even in Dangerous Sporting Activities

Even when a person chooses to participate in a risky sport, he or she does not “assume the risk of whatever dangerous conduct, however unreasonable, is engaged in by the [other] participants.” Instead, in a negligence case, the reasonableness of the defendant’s conduct will be determined based on the circumstances of the case.

In Crisp v. Nelms, No. E2017-01044-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 28, 2018), plaintiff was the surviving spouse of a bicycle rider who died following a cycling accident. At the time of the accident, decedent and four other cyclists were riding in a paceline, which is when the riders proceed in a straight line close together with the front rider setting the pace. Plaintiff alleged that the rider in front suddenly slowed, causing the second rider to bump wheels with the front rider. The second rider then went down, and decedent was unable to avoid the accident, hitting the second rider and being thrown off his bike. Decedent “was rendered quadriplegic by the wreck,” and died a few months thereafter.

Plaintiff filed a negligence suit against the first and second rider, who both filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The trial court ruled that “paceline cycling is inherently dangerous and that Decedent was at least 50% at fault for his accident.” In its order, the trial court stated that “the ultimate conclusion is that these types of accidents are foreseeable in bicycle racing, especially this type of close racing,” and that “these parties chose to engage in this activity.” On appeal, summary judgment was reversed.

In its analysis, the Court of Appeals noted that its “initial inquiry [was] whether a duty of care exists in paceline riding and what the nature of that duty is.” The Court quoted extensively from a case involving a tennis injury, wherein it had “elaborated upon the duty of care in a sports context” and rejected the position that a plaintiff should have to “prove reckless or intentional conduct on the part of a defendant in order to recover for injuries sustained in an athletic competition.” Instead, the Court stated in the tennis case:

We do not share these court’s concerns with respect to the imposition of an ordinary negligence standard in cases of sports related injuries, because we think that the recognition that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently on the playing field than on a public street, will sufficiently prevent the stifling of athletic competition. We also note that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently depending upon the particular sport involved and the likelihood and foreseeability of injury presented by participation in the particular sport. What is reasonable, acceptable, and even encouraged in the in the boxing ring or ice hockey rink, would be negligent or even reckless or intentional tortious conduct in the context of a game of golf or tennis. We should not fashion a different standard of care for each and every sport. We simply recognize that the reasonable conduct standard of care should be given different meaning in the context of different sports and athletic competitions.

(quoting Becksfort v. Jackson, 1996 WL 208786 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 30, 1996)).

Following this logic, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred by “essentially resurrect[ing] implied assumption of risk” with its holding. The Court noted that “[i]nherently risky or not, a paceline rider still has a duty of care to her fellow riders,” and that “each paceline rider in the instant case had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.” After finding that a duty of care did exist, the Court ruled that there were questions of fact regarding “whether a breach of the duty occurred and, if so, by whom.” Thus, summary judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for further litigation.

The Court of Appeals also reversed the finding that decedent was at least 50% at fault for his own injuries. The Court called this a “puzzling and unsupported finding,” noting that if decedent was 50% at fault, then the other riders involved in the accident must have been at least 50% at fault, but that such a scenario would lead to an allocation of more than 100%, which is not possible. The Court reversed this ruling, holding that “[f]inding…that someone who participates with others in an inherently dangerous activity must be at least 50% at fault if he is injured is, once again, an attempt to resurrect the defense of assumption of the risk.”

The Court of Appeals correctly decided this case, reversing the trial court’s faulty reasoning that would have essentially prevented a plaintiff who had been injured in an arguably dangerous sport from ever recovering for negligence, no matter the behavior of the defendant. The Court of Appeals rightly ruled that even in dangerous sports, negligence claims should be judged according to a standard of care requiring reasonable conduct under the circumstances of the case.