Proper Maintenance of Athletic Fields and Legal Liability
Carroll, Michael S., Connaughton, Daniel P., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance
Range v. Abbott Sports Complex et al.
Supreme Court of Nebraska
691 N.W.2d 525
February 4, 2005
The plaintiff, Christopher Range, was participating in a soccer match at the Abbott Sports Complex in Lincoln, Nebraska. While running down the field toward the goal, Range stepped in a small hole in the field and fell, severely and permanently injuring his knee. Range subsequently sued the Abbott Sports Complex and related defendants, alleging negligence, and sought compensation for the injury he sustained. Range had warmed up on the field and had not noticed any problems. Two referees employed by the defendants testified that they inspected the field before the match and did not notice any problems. Approximately 80 minutes of the soccer match were played on the field without incident before the injury occurred. No one could determine whether the hole was created during the game or existed before the game began.
Range claimed that the defendants (1) had a duty to protect him as a participant in their event, (2) either knew or should have known about the hole in the field through proper field inspection and maintenance, and (3) that the failure to protect him against the unreasonable risks posed by the hole in the field was the proximate cause of his injuries. The main issue before the trial court was negligence. Negligence can be defined as "the failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation" (Garner, 2000, p. 846). Negligence can arise either from an act of omission or commission. In order to prove a case of negligence, the plaintiff must show the following four elements:
1. Duty. A special relationship must exist between the service provider (defendant) and the participant (plaintiff), creating an obligation on the part of the service provider to protect the participant from unreasonable risk of harm. A key component of duty is the issue of foreseeability. A service provider is only under a duty to protect a participant against foreseeable unreasonable risks.
2. Breach. The defendant must have violated the obligation owed to the plaintiff by acting or failing to act reasonably, thus not meeting the standard of care owed to the plaintiff.
3. Causation. The breach of the standard of care owed to the plaintiff must have caused the plaintiff's injuries.
4. Damage. The breach must have resulted in damages to the plaintiff's person, property, or interest.
If the four elements of negligence can be established, a plaintiff may recover damages from the defendant(s).
Trial Court's Judgment
The defendants submitted a motion for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss the case. The question before the court was whether Range could establish that the defendants had constructive notice of the hole on the soccer field before the game. Constructive notice is notice arising by presumption of law from the existence of facts and circumstances that a party had a duty to take notice of (Garner, 2002, p. 870). Constructive notice of defects in the environment comes from an obligation to properly inspect facilities and equipment on a regular basis before use by participants (Dougherty, Goldberger, & Carpenter, 2002).
The burden was on Range to provide evidence that the defendants created the hole, had actual knowledge of it, or should have discovered it by exercising reasonable care (constructive notice). The judge accepted the defendants' motion and found that, although Range was injured while playing soccer on a field owned and maintained by the defendants, he could not show how long the hole had existed in the field and could not establish that the defendants had constructive notice of the hole. The court reasoned that Range had the burden to establish a prima facie case (demonstrating evidence sufficient to presume fact) of premises liability. A key element of premises liability is the establishment of the fact that the defendant had constructive notice of the dangerous condition that led to the injury. Since Range could not prove how long the hole existed, the court found the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of the law. Range appealed.
Supreme Court's Decision
The question before the court was whether Range was entitled to an inference that the hole was present on the soccer field before the start of the match. In other words, should the defendants have had constructive notice of the hole? Range testified that the 4- to 5-inch-wide hole appeared to have been created by a small burrowing animal. There was no loose dirt around the perimeter of the hole, and grass was growing around it but not in it. The court agreed that this supported a reasonable inference that the hole existed before the start of the soccer match and that a genuine issue of material fact did exist as to whether the defendants had constructive knowledge of the hole. The court found that Range had submitted enough evidence from his description of the hole to reasonably infer that the hole was not recently created, and it concluded that the trial court erred in granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Therefore, the trial court's judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded.
Risk Management Tips
Although this case was remanded, it has important risk management implications for physical educators and sport managers. Physical educators and sport managers must be proactive in protecting their participants from unreasonable risk of harm. They should schedule regular inspections of fields and other playing surfaces before participant use. In addition, equipment should be checked regularly to detect any damage or wear that would make the equipment unreasonably dangerous for participant use.
If an injury occurs due to a risk that would have been noticed had a proper inspection taken place, a provider may be liable for negligence. Any potentially dangerous risks uncovered during inspection should be eliminated or reduced. If a risk cannot be immediately remedied, the area should be isolated, participants warned, the activity moved to another location or cancelled, or other action should be taken to provide a reasonably safe environment. When conducting an inspection, an inspection report or checklist should be used to document all relevant information, including the person conducting the inspection, the date the inspection took place, any dangerous risks uncovered, and what actions, if any, were taken to minimize or eliminate these risks. In the event of litigation, documentation supporting that sufficient measures were taken to inspect for risks may reduce or prevent liability (Spengler, Connaughton, & Pittman, 2006).
Dougherty, N. J., Goldberger, A. S., & Carpenter, L. J. (2002). Sport, physical activity, and the law (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Sagamore.
Garner, B. A. (Ed.). (2000). Black's law dictionary (7th ed.). St. Paul, MN: West.
Spengler, J. O., Connaughton, D. P., & Pittman, A. T. (2006). Risk management in sport and recreation. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
--Michael S. Carroll is a doctoral student, and Daniel P. Connaughton is an associate professor, in the Department of Tourism, Recreation, and Sport Management at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.
Editor: Andrew T. Pittman
RELATED ARTICLE: Disclaimer
The comments regarding the case presented here are generalized thoughts and not hard law. The cases in Law Review are illustrative of situations that can happen and how the courts have responded to the circumstances. The generalized thoughts may not apply or be proper in all states and jurisdictions and under all circumstances. Finally, it is important to understand that the tips provided may not apply in your state or jurisdiction.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Proper Maintenance of Athletic Fields and Legal Liability. Contributors: Carroll, Michael S. - Author, Connaughton, Daniel P. - Author. Journal title: JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. Volume: 77. Issue: 5 Publication date: May-June 2006. Page number: 10+. © 2009 American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD). COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.