Accidents from sport and recreation – the legal position


Statistics show that many accident victims sustain a spinal cord injury during the course of sport or recreation, particularly from accidents involving horse riding, diving and rugby. The growing popularity of “dangerous sports” such as bungee jumping and mountaineering and motorsports has added to the statistics.

Spinal Cord Injury

So what is the legal position if something goes wrong?

The starting point is to remember a concept in law known as volenti (non fit injuria). Essentially, the law will not entertain claims by injured individuals who deliberately put themselves in danger. Thus, a boxer who is knocked out by his opponent cannot sue for the assault he has suffered.

Sometimes, the legal position is not so clear cut. The laws relating to negligence (and breaches of statutory duty) still apply. Thus, a referee on the football field who fails to control the game with a resultant injury or a motorcycle manufacturer who supplies a machine to a racer with defective parts, may still be liable in law.

The past 10 years or so has witnessed a backlash by the courts against claims for injuries involving sports and recreation. We have all seen the popular tabloid press print stories (often not factually correct) under headlines such as “health and safety gone mad” or “nanny state claims”. Thus, even where injured victims have been able to establish negligence as a cause of their injuries, the courts have refused compensation on the grounds of “public policy” – that is, allowing an injured accident victim to bring a claim would discourage fun and recreational activities, such as school ski trips, village fetes and the like.

In February 2013, the High Court of Justice delivered a judgment which indicates that it is still possible to bring claims for recreational injuries.

Mr Uren was an RAF officer. He participated in a “fun day” organised by the RAF. There were various “It's a Knockout” style games, one of which involved climbing over and diving into a small pool of water. The pool was described as a “children’s paddling pool” (but in actual fact it was designed as a ball pond rather than to hold water). Mr Uren followed the game rules, but sustained a very serious spinal cord injury in the process. He brought a claim against the MOD and the organisers of the event. The case initially came before the High Court. He lost the claim on the basis that it would be against public policy to award him damages. To do so would discourage “fun days” and that was not in the public interest. The court found that this was just an unfortunate accident. Mr Uren appealed on the grounds that the Defendants had failed to carry out a proper risk assessment and had they done so, the game would have been changed and the accident not occurred. The Court of Appeal agreed that there was sufficient evidence to justify a retrial. At the second High Court trial, Mr Uren succeeded.

Cases involving recreation and sports are not straightforward. These cases turn on the individual facts and it is therefore important to take advice from a specialist injury solicitor at an early stage.

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