Case Examines Question of What Is a Buffer Zone Is?

Aug 2, 2019

By Gil Fried
What is the definition of a buffer zone? It is an area that provides buffer between area and items to provide a safe area. While some facility managers might not be as familiar with the term, they are normally very familiar with the concept. There needs to be enough room at a sport facility to make sure participants and spectators are safe from possible harm. It is not enough that facility managers need to understand and have an appropriate buffer zone, but attorneys also need to understand the concept.
This concern was brought to the forefront in a recent case, Krzenski v. Southampton Union Free School Dist. (2019 N.Y. App. Div. Lexis 4421 and 2019 WL 2363616. The plaintiff in that case was injured while playing floor hockey in the defendant’s gym. The plaintiff was allegedly hit in the back by an opposing player, pushing her into an unpadded metal railing of the bleachers. The bleachers had been extended and were being used as the sideline boundaries for the game. The plaintiff had played in the gym before with the same configuration.
The defendant moved for summary judgment based on primary assumption of risk. As the court highlighted, the risks inherent in sporting events are those that are known, natural, and reasonably foreseeable consequences of participation. This includes risks associated with the construction of the playing surface and any associated open and obvious conditions of the playing surface. Furthermore, the court concluded that participants do not assume risks that are concealed or unreasonably increased over and beyond the usually inherent dangers of the sport.
What drew my attention was the fact that the plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the failure to pad the metal railing on the bleacher stairs or to use a buffer zone between the bleachers and the playing area created a risk beyond the risks inherent in floor hockey. In particular, the court noted, the plaintiff’s expert failed to accurately identify a violation of any specific safety standards which was applicable to floor hockey.
This raises an important concept for any attorney litigating a buffer zone related case. When retaining an expert they need to make sure they can identify the exact court dimensions and how much room is needed to safely play a sport. While there are some well-established ideas of buffer zones, not all purported buffer zones have been tested. I published a peer reviewed paper with several colleagues earlier this year on basketball buffer zones. There are numerous other sports where there might not be a tested or codified buffer zone. In that case, a reasonable buffer zone might need to be used as a frame of reference. In one volleyball case I worked on that went to trial, the question of how much space was needed beyond the boundaries was needed for volleyball. Volleyball differs from many sports in that a player can run 20 feet outside the court lines and return a ball and it would have been in play the entire time. In my case, the plaintiff slipped on netting (used to separate activity in the building) that was 15 feet behind the court’s endline. The case went to a jury who concluded that 15 feet was a reasonable distance and we were able to receive a defense verdict.
Gil Fried is an internationally recognized expert on stadium safety and risk management, sport finance, and sport analytics. He is also a sports law professor and chair of the sports management department at the University of New Haven.


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