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. …