Appellate Court Holds Sporting Event Rules Violations Not Necessarily Reckless Misconduct

Getting hurt is always a risk when you play sports, but injuries arising out of participation in a sport that lead to litigation are relatively rare. 

In Campau v Renaud, unpublished per curiam of the Michigan Court of Appeals, issued on Aug. 6 (Docket No. 347622), the appellate court was confronted with a case involving a knee-to-knee collision of two young soccer players who were both going for the ball at the same time. 

At his deposition, the referee testified no foul had occurred, but the plaintiff’s father disagreed. The plaintiff’s father recalled that his son, who was playing goalie, had jumped to catch the ball. One to two seconds after he landed, the defendant collided with his right side. The father further testified that based on  his 40 years of experience playing soccer, he thought the defendant acted recklessly, as the custom is to give the goalie a wide berth when he or she has the ball. 

The plaintiff’s coach testified that such collisions were common and that it was a risk inherent in playing goalie. The plaintiff alleged negligence on the part of the defendant. The defendant moved for summary disposition. 

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, holding that the plaintiff had to establish that the conduct at issue was reckless, which the court described as “specific intent” to harm the plaintiff. The court concluded that it did not appear as though defendant intended to collide with the plaintiff. The plaintiff appealed.   

On appeal, the plaintiff argued a genuine issue of material fact existed and, therefore, the trial court improperly granted summary disposition in favor of defendant, but the appellate court disagreed. The appellate court began its analysis by reiterating that the plaintiff was required to establish reckless misconduct in order to recover, because the plaintiff was engaged in a recreational activity at the time, citing Ritchie-Gamester v Berkley, 461 Mich 73 (1999). 

The appellate court noted that the violation of an athletic competition rule did not necessarily establish reckless misconduct. Instead, the plaintiff was required to prove that the defendant’s action demonstrated a “willingness or indifference to the injury of [plaintiff].” The appellate court explained that risks inherent in the recreational activity and “[c]onduct within the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport is not reckless” and liability will not arise “unless a participant’s actions exceed the normal bounds of conduct associated with the activity.”  Id. at 87, 94. 

In affirming the trial court’s dismissal, the appellate court stated it was not persuaded by the testimony of the plaintiff’s father, noting that the “plaintiff’s father’s subjective assessment of the events amounts to a potential soccer rule violation [but] [h]is assessment has no relevance to an objective analysis of reckless conduct…” 

The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Ritchie-Gamester seems to support that conclusion. In that case, the Supreme Court noted that it did not believe “a player expects an injury, even if it results from a rule violation, to give rise to liability. Instead… players participate with the expectation that no liability will arise unless a participant’s actions exceed the normal bounds of conduct associated with the activity.”

The Campau decision stands for the proposition that a rules violation does not per se amount to reckless conduct. The appellate court left open the possibility that particularly egregious rules violations could amount to reckless misconduct, but perhaps even flagrant rules violations will still not amount to reckless conduct if the defendant is able to establish that he or she had no “willingness or indifference” to the plaintiff’s injury, provided the violation did not “exceed the normal bounds of conduct.”  

This opinion provides insurers, their insureds, and anyone who participates in a recreational activity, with some useful guidance for potential claims. 

Unless another case comes along that is contrary to Campau, in Michigan at least, it’s play on!

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