Can you sue for a sports-related injury?

Everyone has a sports injury story—some worse than others.  Whether you are a life-long athlete, a casual participant, or even a spectator, sports always involve some kind of risk.  In New York, you can’t bring a lawsuit for a sports-related injury if, by participating, you assumed the risk of getting hurt.

“Assumption of Risk” means that you entered into a situation knowing and understanding the risks involved.  For instance, if you go ice skating you assume the risk that you might slip on the ice and hurt yourself.  If you go to a baseball game, you assume the risk that you might get struck by a ball hit into the stands.  If your child is on the school basketball team, he or she assumes the risk that they might get elbowed in the nose.  Because these risks are “assumed,” meaning because you decided to participate in the activity regardless of the known dangers of the sport, you can’t bring a lawsuit for those injuries you sustain.  But not all sports injuries are the result of assumed risk.

In New York, the law says you are not responsible for the intentional or reckless behavior of other people when you play sports.  This means that you do not assume the risk that some person will recklessly or intentionally harm you, outside the scope of what you might expect while playing certain kinds of sports.  For example, if you are boxing, you assume the risk that you might get punched in the face.   If you are playing tennis, you assume the risk that you might get struck on the nose by the tennis ball.  You DO NOT assume the risk that you might get punched in the face while playing tennis.  So, if your tennis opponent hops over the net and starts attacking you, you can sue him for the injuries you sustained in the attack because you did not assume the risk of getting punched when you decided to play tennis.

Intentional conduct, like being assaulted by your tennis opponent, is an easy example of the kind of risk you don’t assume.  But what about “reckless” conduct?  That is much more difficult to recognize.  What might be reckless to one person may not be reckless to another.  Take this recent case, for example:  In Thornton v. Rickner, 2012 NY Slip Op 03303, the plaintiff was struck from behind while on a beginner’s ski trail by an out of control snowboarder.  Being struck from behind on a ski trail is a risk one assumes when skiing.  But does an inexperienced skier assume the risk of being hit so hard that they sustain serious injuries while on a beginner trail?  Is the defendant at fault for allowing himself to tackle a trail above his ability level and get so out of control that he was able to strike someone hard enough to hurt them?  In this case, the Supreme Court of Monroe County found that the plaintiff DID assume the risk of being struck from behind by an inexperienced, out of control snowboarder.  Nothing the snowboarder did was any different than what could be expected of a snowboarder learning to ride.  He did not engage in any activity that increased the risk he posed to others.   So here, the injured person lost.

What could have made this case turn out differently?  What if the out of control snowboarder was drunk?  That would certainly be reckless.  What if this beginner-level snowboarder went down an expert-level trail?  One might consider that reckless as well.  What if he was blindfolded?  Undoubtedly reckless!  These are examples of “risk-increasing behavior” that is outside the scope of what someone might expect while skiing.  When you sustain a sports-related injury because someone acted differently than you would or should have expected them to act while participating in that sport, you might have a case against them.

If you have a sports-related injury and you’re not sure whether you assumed the risk that led to your accident, give us a call.  We’d be happy to talk to you for free.