Lawsuits Arising From Participation in Athletic Activities

What does tort law tell us about liability for injuries arising during sporting events and, in particular, contact sports?  The recent case of Feld v. Borkowski gives us the answer, at least from the standpoint of the Iowa Supreme Court.

Plaintiff and defendant were playing intramural softball .  Defendant hit the ball and let go of the bat at the same time.  The bat flew through the area, striking and injuring plaintiff (who was playing first base).  Plaintiff filed a negligence suit, and defendant sought dismissal of the suit arguing that softball was a contact sport and thus he could only be sued if his conduct was reckless.

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed, saying that 

[w]hile the duty to exercise reasonable care accompanies each individual in most all activities of life, some activities or circumstances have been excepted from the reasonable-care duty in favor of the imposition of a less stringent duty of care for participants in the activity to protect others from injury.  . . . One such activity that has been identified as an exception is contact sports. Prior to our decision in Thompson to follow the analytical framework of the Restatement (Third) of Torts for claims of negligence involving physical harm, we followed other states in excepting participants in contact sports from constraining their actions under the conventional duty to act as a reasonable person. See Leonard ex rel. Meyer v. Behrens, 601 N.W.2d 76, 81 (Iowa 1999).  In finding the game of paintball to be a contact sport in Leonard, we imposed a duty for participants in the sport to merely refrain from reckless or intentional conduct. Id. at 81 …  This standard recognizes that known risks associated with a contact sport are assumed by participants in the sport, and it is inapposite to the competitiveness of contact sports to impose a duty on participants to protect coparticipants from such known and accepted risks through the exercise of reasonable care.  See Leonard, 601 N.W.2d at 79 & n.3 (noting assumption of the risk in its primary sense is a defense to negligence). The standard also recognizes that athletes who step onto the playing field to compete are not completely free from legal responsibility for their conduct that creates a risk of injury, but are restrained under a substantially lower duty of care. See Nabozny v. Barnhill, 334 N.E.2d 258, 260-61 (Ill. App. Ct. 1975).   (Footnotes omitted).

A majority of the Iowa Court went on to conclude that   "softball for purposes of tort liability is a contact sport, and this conclusion is sufficient to transform liability for an injury sustained by a participant while engaged in the sport from a standard of negligence to a standard of recklessness. Clearly, batting is normal activity in the sport of softball and creates a risk of harm to participants in a number of ways, including a risk that the bat will be released during the swing in some way and will become an instrument of harm to participants in some way."   Thus, the Court held that the plaintiff had to demonstrate that defendant was reckless before liability could be imposed for the injuries.

Finally, the Court concluded that reasonable minds could differ on whether as to whether defendant’s swing and release of the bat was reckless, and thus reversed the earlier dismissal of the case.

The case is Feld v. Borkowski,  No. 07-133 (Iowa Oct. 22, 2010).

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