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October 1, 2012

Court of Appeals Reaffirms Assumption of the Risk Doctrine in Sports-Related Injury Cases

The Court of Appeals reaffirmed the assumption of the risk doctrine as a significant hurdle for plaintiffs in sports-related personal injury lawsuits in the recent case, Bukowski v Clarkson Univ., 19 N.Y.3d 353 (2012). In Bukowski, a pitcher on a college baseball team was injured during a practice when he was hit by a line drive. He brought a personal injury lawsuit against the head coach and the college. In an effort to avoid the assumption of the risk doctrine, Plaintiff argued he was subjected to increased risks while throwing "live" training pitches in a nylon cage to a batter and catcher. Plaintiff alleged that such increased risks included a multi-colored pitching backdrop and low lighting which made the ball hard to see. Further, an L-screen, which is a net designed to protect pitchers, was not used.

The Court stated that the assumption of risk doctrine "applies where a consenting participant in sporting and amusement activities 'is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks.'" Where the plaintiff has assumed the risk, "defendant owes him no duty," barring any personal injury action. The assumption of risk doctrine often encompasses "risks involving less than optimal conditions" so long as the defendant fulfills its duty of making the "conditions as safe as they appear to be."

The Court found that the Plaintiff was an experienced and knowledgeable baseball player who assumed the inherent risk of being hit by a line drive. Risks inherent in a sport, "such as being struck by a ball or bat in baseball, are risks [for] which various participants are legally deemed to have accepted personal responsibility." (quoting Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 484 (1997)). Plaintiff had observed the conditions under which the practice was taking place and acknowledged that he was aware of the risk of getting hurt in baseball; had seen other pitchers get hit by batted balls; had experienced balls being batted back at him; and had hit batters with his own pitches. Despite his awareness of these conditions, he proceeded to practice.

The Court explained that there is a difference between accidents resulting from defective sporting equipment such as tripping on a torn tennis net, and accidents resulting from less than optimal conditions. The risks associated with defective equipment are not assumed. See Bukowski, 19 N.Y.3d at 5. The risks from playing in less than optimal but known conditions are assumed. Here, the conditions under which Plaintiff played were not the result of defective equipment, but were inherent to the sport of baseball in an indoor facility.

The Court noted the underlying policy issues confirming that sporting activities possess enormous social value and that the doctrine of assumption of the risk facilitates free and vigorous participation in athletic activities. A college should be able to hold practices indoors without fear of liability for their "inability to replicate the ideal conditions" of outdoor practice. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court's directed verdict to Defendants on the grounds that Plaintiff assumed the commonly appreciated risk in baseball of being hit by a line drive.

The Bukowski decision should encourage defendants to seek dismissal of sporting injury claims at the onset of litigation, so long as it is undisputed that the condition which caused the injury is merely a "less than optimal" condition as opposed to a clear defect in sporting equipment.

If you require further information regarding the information presented in this Legal Alert and its impact on your organization, please contact any of the members of the Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.


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