In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court revisited the standard for civil liability for players, coaches, referees and facilities for injuries resulting from misconduct during amateur contact sports.

The case involved a Midget Major ice hockey game. The 17-year-old defendant, Julion Lever, checked the 17-year-old plaintiff, Daniel Borella, hard from behind and into the boards. Borella fell to the ice, briefly lost consciousness and Lever’s skate blade severely sliced Borella’s wrist. As a result of the cut, Borella permanently lost partial use of his dominant hand.

Borella filed suit against Lever and other defendants, including his coach (a parent volunteer), two of the opposing team’s coaches (one parent volunteer and a second that was not present at the game), two referees (who earned $33.25 each for the game), and the owners and managers of the ice rink that hosted the game.

When Are Players Subject to Civil Liability?

The Appeals Court first had to decide the appropriate standard for negligence with respect to participants in contact sports, such as hockey, and when a player can be liable for conduct within the game. Earlier cases established that only “reckless” conduct can give rise to liability and defined “reckless conduct” as intentional conduct involving a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another. The question, then, is what “reckless” means in the context of contact sports. After all, even a perfectly clean hockey hit, football tackle, softball slide, or soccer tackle exposes other players to a high risk of harm.

The Appeals Court decided that, in the context of contact sports, only “extreme misconduct outside the range of ordinary activity inherent in the sport” can subject a player to potential civil liability. The court was careful to note that a mere violation of the rules of the game is not enough to impose civil liability. Instead, the reckless standard is only met where the player engages in extreme misconduct outside the range of the ordinary activity inherent in the sport being played that is not directly related to obtaining a competitive advantage.

Here, the Appeals Court found that no rational view of the evidence would permit a finding that Lever’s check from behind into the boards (and for which he was assessed a minor boarding penalty) amounted to reckless conduct for which civil liability could be imposed. The court reasoned that the Midget Majors hockey division requires players to be aggressive and physical and that body checking is an inherent aspect of the sport. Because Borella was in possession of the puck when Lever hit him, Lever’s conduct was directly related to obtaining a competitive advantage. Therefore, no rational jury could find that Lever engaged in “reckless” conduct.

What About Coaches, Referees and Facilities?

Having decided that Lever was not subject to civil liability, the Appeals Court then turned to the referees, coaches and facility defendants. With respect to the referees, the court decided that there was no causal link between anything the referees did or did not do and Borella’s injury. The court noted that, while some of the players and fans (shockingly!) complained about missed calls, there was no evidence that the supposed missed calls affected Lever or Borella. The evidence showed that the referees called multiple penalties on both teams, cautioned the teams against verbal taunting, and that there were no prior conflicts between Borella and Lever before the boarding incident. As such, the Appeals Court held that there was no rational basis for a jury to conclude that more penalty calls would have altered Lever’s conduct in any way.

With respect to the coaches, the Appeals Court similarly found no basis for liability. The Appeals Court noted that prior cases have determined that coaches may be found liable only where there is evidence that the coaches were aware that the player had a propensity for violent conduct or where there was some warning that the player was heading towards such conduct as the game progressed. In this case, the court found that no such evidence existed. There was no evidence that Lever was prone to violent behavior and the boarding incident was his first penalty of the game.

Finally, the Appeals Court found no basis for liability as to the facility defendants. While Borella claimed that the facility defendants were negligent in allowing referees to officiate too many games in one day, the court found that there was nothing in the record to suggest that the referees missed calls or that such missed calls led to Borella’s injury. Borella additionally argued that the facility defendants were liable because Borella’s team and Lever’s team were of vastly different skill levels and should not have been scheduled to play one another. The court rejected this argument on the grounds that there was a “mercy rule” in place to deal with gross disparities in skill level.

What Does This All Mean?

Players should be aware that civil liability can result if they engage in conduct outside the range of activity inherent in the sport that is not designed to gain a competitive advantage. While a boarding penalty may not be enough where the player has the puck, a boarding penalty away from the puck may be. Coaches should keep their players under control. While coaches cannot be held liable for encouraging aggressive play, if a player is clearly losing control coaches have an obligation to intervene. For referees the lesson is similar. If a game is getting out of hand and leading towards potential violent behavior, referees have an obligation to intervene and gain control of the game by calling fouls or penalties, issuing verbal warnings or, if necessary, ending the game early. Finally, for facilities, it is important to have rules in place to maintain competitive balance among teams, to properly supervise referees and to ensure that referees are not overworked.

Anthony B. Fioravanti is an Attorney at Kenney & Sams, P.C. and a volunteer youth soccer coach. He represents business and individuals in complex commercial and construction disputes.