When can a player’s conduct in a sporting activity lead to liability for injuring another participant? That was the issue in a recent court of appeals decision in Geauga County. In a women’s softball game, a runner on third base tried to score on a sacrifice fly. The catcher was standing just inside the baseline and caught the ball when the runner was about three to five feet away. A collision occurred between the runner and the catcher and the catcher sustained injury.
There was a dispute as to what happened. The catcher claimed that the runner lowered her shoulder and barreled into her, sending her to the hospital with injuries. This was against the softball league rules that forbade a runner from crashing into a player attempting to make a play on a runner. The runner claimed that she slid head first into home, a play that is allowed under the rules.
The catcher filed a lawsuit against the runner claiming both recklessness and negligence. The runner filed a motion to have the judge throw the case out and the trial judge did just that. The catcher appealed this decision to the court of appeals who reversed the trial court and said that if the catcher’s version was correct, a jury should decide whether the runner was responsible for the injuries.
The court reviewed the rule of law that applied and said that when individuals engage in recreational or sports activities, they assume the ordinary risks of the activity and cannot recover for any injury unless the other participant’s actions were either reckless or intentional. A player who injures another player by conduct that is a foreseeable and customary part of the game cannot be held liable because no duty is owed to protect the victim from that conduct. If the conduct is foreseeable, the offending player is only liable if the player acted recklessly. If the conduct is not a part of the game, then the player is liable if he or she acted negligently.
The court discussed an earlier case in which a man in a potato-sack race was injured when a fellow participant tackled him. In that case, the court found that "intentional tackling is not a customary part of the sport of sack racing." As a result, the tackling party could be liable if his conduct were negligent. However, in sports like football, where tackling is a customary part of the game, a player would only be liable if his conduct was reckless and exceeded the bounds of what is reasonably foreseeable in the sport.
In ruling upon the softball game lawsuit, the court of appeals found that a jury should decide whether the runner acted recklessly. The court re-iterated that when a participant harms "another with reckless disregard for that person’s safety or with specific intent to injure" and that conduct is not part of the sport, the injured party has the possibility of a civil remedy.