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Personal Injury

Foreseeability of risks key to claims against sports leagues, coaches

There are limits to the risks sports administrators and volunteer coaches can be expected to anticipate, Toronto personal injury lawyer David Derfel tells AdvocateDaily.com.

In a recent Ontario Court of Appeal (OCA) judgment, a unanimous panel of the province’s top court upheld a motion judge’s decision to dismiss a soccer player’s case against various league organizers and coaches after he was assaulted by an opposing player.

Derfel, founder and principal of Derfel Injury Lawyers, says the decision came down to what was foreseeable. The appeal court reaffirmed existing case law by stating, “The law is clear that supervising authorities are not legally responsible for ‘a sudden unexpected event in the midst of an acceptable, safe activity.’”

“I think there are limits to what’s reasonably foreseeable in terms of the conduct of others, and if there’s nothing to indicate someone will engage in violence, then how can a league be expected to protect against that?” he wonders. “At the end of the day, the league can’t protect you from everyone, and individuals have to bear the consequences of their own actions.”

Derfel has experience coaching youth soccer and hockey players at various levels and says many training programs for these volunteer positions include instructions on how to spot concerning conduct by players or their family members, and how to report it.

“But there’s only so much they can do,” he adds. “You can’t eliminate all the risks.”

Derfel says the case reminds him of matters that involve injuries inflicted by patrons in nightclubs, where a plaintiff attempts to have the proprietor found liable.

“If there’s no prior history of this type of action and it was a spontaneous act, there’s not much a club can do to protect you,” he says.

According to the OCA decision, one of the defendants was convicted criminally of assaulting the plaintiff for running up and punching him following an altercation between one of his teammates and the plaintiff.

However, the victim also sued the defendant’s team, the soccer league and a number of coaches, arguing they should have anticipated his conduct and dealt with the problem before it escalated.

The appeal court agreed with the motion judge who dismissed the civil claim against all the defendants except the puncher, declaring that his previous suspensions for being “verbally inappropriate” with referees were not predictive of the violent physical assault.  

But Derfel says future claims against league administrators or coaches for negligence or under the Occupiers’ Liability Act could still turn out differently depending on the fact situation.

“If there was some kind of warning that a player or coach had a history of violence or threats of violence, and the organization was aware or ought to have been aware, then, of course, liability could attach,” he says. “Again, the real question is, 'Was it foreseeable?”

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