Appeals Court Expands Contact Sports Exception to Leagues, Organizers

Mar 16, 2007

An Illinois state appeals court has broadly construed the contact sports exception to include organizers in a case where the parents of a player who was injured in a hockey game sued the players who caused the injury and the organizers of the league.
While affirming the dismissal of that portion of the complaint, the appeals court reversed the trial court and its decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim that the individual defendants exhibited “willful and wanton conduct,” finding that the plaintiff should be afforded “an opportunity to prove the truth of the allegations.”
On January 25, 2004, Benjamin Karas was playing in an organized hockey contest against a team being fielded by the Naperville Central Redhawk Hockey Association (NCRHA). The Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois, of which the NCRHA is was a member, had promulgated and disseminated hockey contest rules, including a prohibition against checking from behind. In fact, the backs of all game jerseys for players on both teams had sewn above or between the players’ numbers “the warning ‘STOP’ to reinforce the prohibition” against checking from behind. Nevertheless, individual defendants, Joseph Strevell and Russell Zimmerman, checked Karas into the boards, causing serious injury.
The plaintiff sued for negligence, naming the players and organizers as defendants. Among the specific allegations in his complaint was that the organizers “failed to instruct its member officials to strictly enforce the prohibition against checking from behind and failed to discipline or sanction officials for their known failure to strictly enforce the prohibition against checking from behind.”
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim, sparking the present appeal.
Addressing the plaintiff’s cause of action against the individual defendants first, the appeals court found that the trial judge erred in dismissing the complaint.
“(Participants) owe each other a duty to refrain only from willful and wanton or intentional misconduct, and they are liable for injuries resulting from a breach of that limited duty. Pfister v. Shusta, 167 Ill. 2d 417, 420, 657 N.E.2d 1013, 212 Ill. Dec. 668 (1995).” To make that determination, a court most engage in “close scrutiny of the facts as disclosed by the evidence. O’Brien v. Township High School District 214, 83 Ill. 2d 462, 469, 415 N.E.2d 1015, 47 Ill. Dec. 702 (1980).”
In sum, the appeals court found that “the factual allegations above meet the requirements for pleading a cause of action based on willful and wanton conduct. Plaintiff alleged not only that Strevell and Zimmerman broke the rules of hockey, but that they broke a rule of such special emphasis that players’ jerseys were altered to reinforce it. Plaintiff also alleged circumstances surrounding Strevell’s and Zimmerman’s actions–they allegedly checked Benjamin when he was defenseless and in a position of acute vulnerability–that evince a conscious disregard for his safety. These allegations taken as true create an inference that Strevell’s and Zimmerman’s actions exceeded those acceptable during the excitement of play and were so reckless that they were likely to cause, and indeed did cause, injury to another. Therefore, we conclude that the first count of plaintiff’s complaint should be reinstated so that he has an opportunity to prove the truth of the allegations.”
The plaintiff’s second argument was that the trial court erred in dismissing counts II, IV and VI of his complaint, which alleged negligence against NCRHA, AHAI and IHOA on the basis that those organizations “did not owe plaintiff a normal duty of reasonable care. The trial court reached this ruling by relying on the organizational defendants’ argument that the contact sports exception to the general duty rule should apply not only to protect sports participants, but also sports organizers.”
The appeals court noted that the contact sports exception was first announced in Illinois in Nabozny v. Barnhill, 31 Ill. App. 3d 212, 334 N.E.2d 258 (1975), promulgating the idea that the law “should not place unreasonable burdens on the free and vigorous participation in sports by our youth.”
The instant court added that “it appears that the exception is premised on the idea that participants in contact sporting games assume and consent to risks associated with the physical nature of those games. Also based on the above discussion, we conclude that the principles underlying assumption of the risk–primarily, that the plaintiff has consented to a risk–apply with equal force as protection for co-participants and as protection for organizers based on the conduct of co-participants. A plaintiff no less assumes the risk of a co-participant’s negligent conduct if the conduct is brought about by some antecedent negligence from another party. Put another way, a coach’s or organizer’s negligence leading to a player’s negligence does not increase the risks inherent in the game, which, as recognized by Illinois law, include negligent play. As such, we agree with the organizational defendants that the consent granted by each participant is not specific to the similarly situated participants, but instead to the risks associated with the game, regardless of whether the risks stem from co-participants or some other source. Thus, to the extent that the contact sports exception is based on assumption of the risk, the policy considerations underlying that doctrine lead us toward expanding the exception to organizers and coaches.”
Plaintiff’s third appellate argument is that the trial court erred in dismissing counts III, V and VII of the second amended complaint for failing to allege willful and wanton conduct by NCRHA, AHAI and IHOA. The appeals court disagreed. “Plaintiff’s essential contention regarding all three organizational defendants is that they failed to enforce hockey safety rules sufficiently, and that this failure led to, and perhaps encouraged, Strevell’s and Zimmerman’s allegedly improper conduct, which caused Benjamin’s injury. While we do not dispute plaintiff’s assertion that omissions or failures to act can constitute willful and wanton conduct (see, e. g., Carter v. New Trier East High School, 272 Ill. App. 3d 551, 650 N.E.2d 657, 208 Ill. Dec. 963(1995)), we hold that the omissions and failures alleged here, even if proven, would not amount to willful and wanton conduct.
“Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s dismissal of counts III, V, and VII of plaintiff’s second amended complaint.”
Robert Karas et al. v. Joseph Strevell et al.; App. Ct. Ill., 2d. Cir.; No. 2-05-1218; 2006 Ill. App. LEXIS 1236; 12/29/06


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