Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

The "Inherent Risk" Doctrine, Amateur Coaching Negligence, and the Goal of Loss Avoidance

Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

The "Inherent Risk" Doctrine, Amateur Coaching Negligence, and the Goal of Loss Avoidance

Article excerpt


Personal injuries are an unavoidable consequence of American sports. Within the United States alone, sports-related injuries account for approximately 3.7 million emergency room visits per year, costing Americans at least $680 million in annual medical expenses.' These injuries are often fatal; sports-related injuries kill about 150 student-athletes nationwide each year,2 not to mention recreational or professional athletes.3 These statistics help explain the evolution of sports-medicine,4 countless lawsuits alleging sports-related negligence,5 and sky-rocketing insurance premiums for sports-related coverage.6 These social and economic trends seem invariably linked to the continued popularity of competitive amateur sports.7

Needless to say, sports-related injuries are a continuing social problem. To exacerbate this problem, within the context of many high-contact sports, personal injuries are not only a consequence of competition, they are an object of that competition.8 Consider the sport of boxing: two combatants spend multiple rounds pummeling each other, seeking to inflict a temporary loss of consciousness (i.e., a "knockout") upon the opponent.9 Within any other context, such conduct rises to a level of criminality. However, within the context of sports such as boxing, wrestling, hockey, martial arts, and football, such conduct is not only tolerated, it is encouraged.10

This legal double standard also applies to athletic coaches who "often achieve results through techniques that could legally be considered 'wanton' or 'grossly negligent' in any other context."11 The dangers associated with such coaching methods have not gone unnoticed.12 For example, three well-known college football players lost their lives while participating in pre-season workouts during the summer of 2001 (each giving rise to claims of coaching negligence).13 A number of professional athletes endured similar, near-fatal ordeals during the pre-season of 2003.14 Not surprisingly, these episodes have spurred public debate concerning the proper scope of coaching liability.15

At first glance, this matter appears to be fairly settled. Under the doctrine of primary implied assumption of risk, athletic trainers, directors and coaches (hereinafter "coaches") are under no duty to protect their players from the "inherent risks" associated with their respective sports.16 Traditional examples of "inherent risk" include physical contact, falling down, and fatigue.17 A majority of jurisdictions follow this approach as a matter of public policy, seeking to preserve vigorous competition as a staple of American sport.18 This public policy is justified by the well-established doctrine ofvolenti non fit injuria: one who willingly encounters "open and obvious" danger should be responsible for injuries arising therefrom.19

There can be little doubt that competitive sports involve an array of "open and obvious" dangers. The "rough and tumble" nature of athletic competition creates risks that competitors necessarily acknowledge, understand, and accept. For example, football players implicitly acknowledge, understand, and accept the risk of being tackled;20 boxers implicitly acknowledge, understand, and accept the risk of being "knocked out," or even killed.21 Within these and similar contexts, the maintenance of vigorous competition depends upon a system of "no liability"22 with respect to certain risks, to wit, primary implied assumption of risk. This allocation of risk23 raises an immediate conflict of interest between student-athletes and their coaches (which is the main subject of this Comment): vigorous athletic competition tends to undermine the countervailing interest in safety; the more vigorously athletes compete (or are pushed to compete by coaches), the less safe competition tends to become. Primary implied assumption of risk seeks to resolve this conflict of interest-unsuccessfully with respect to acts of careless amateur coaching-by allocating to student-athletes the risks that are inherent to competition and barring recovery as a matter of law. …

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