Illinois Supreme Court Emphasizes Contact Sports Exception in Reversal

Apr 11, 2008

The Supreme Court of Illinois has reinstated a trial court’s decision that dismissed the complaint of a hockey player’s parent, who filed a lawsuit after his son was body checked from behind during a hockey game.
Specifically, the court echoed the findings of circuit court of Du Page County, which found that the contact sports exception adopted by the high court in Pfister v. Shusta, 167 Ill. 2d 417 (1995), was applicable.
The incident occurred when Benjamin Karas was playing in an organized ice hockey game and was body checked from behind by two opposing players, suffering an injury.
Karas’ father, Robert Karas, sued, alleging that the opposing players’ conduct was willful and wanton, and further alleged that the opposing players’ team, the governing association of the officials who refereed the game, and the amateur hockey league to which the opposing teams belonged, had both negligently, and willfully and wantonly, caused the injury.
The defendants filed motions to dismiss the claim. The trial court, relying primarily on the contact sports exception, dismissed plaintiff’s complaint in its entirety. This sparked an appeal in which an appellate court reversed in part and affirmed in part. 369 Ill. App. 3d 884.
The court concluded that plaintiff had successfully pled willful and wanton conduct on the part of the player defendants, had successfully pled negligence on the part of the
organizational defendants, and had successfully pled a civil conspiracy. However, the appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s allegations of willful and wanton conduct against the organizational defendants.
Following another appeal, this one from the defendants, the Supreme Court of Illinois reversed that portion of the appellate court judgment that allowed the claims of willful and wanton conduct on the part of the player defendants, and negligence and civil conspiracy on the part of the organizational defendants, to go forward.
In an analysis, he posted on the Sports Law Blog, Timothy L. Epstein of SmithAmundsen, LLC, who is representing an individual defendant in the case, gleaned the following relevant holdings from the high court’s opinion:
• “The Contact Sports Exception is not an affirmative defense, nor does the exception require a court to explore the plaintiff’s subjective awareness of the risks associated with a particular sport. Rather, the Exception defines the scope of a defendant’s duty.
• “In deciding if a sport qualifies under the Exception, a court must consider the nature of the sport, specifically looking at the inherent risks in said sport. If physical contact among co-participants is inherent in the game, a player owes no duty to a co-participant to avoid ordinary negligence. Again, the court will look to the objective factors of the game, not the subjective expectation of the parties.
• “Ice hockey and tackle football are not only contact sports under the Exception, but are considered by the Court to be full-contact sports. The Court defines full-contact sports as sports where ‘physical contact between players is not simply an unavoidable byproduct of vigorous play, but is a fundamental part of the way the game is played,’ and as such, ‘[i]n these sports, holding participants liable for consciously disregarding the safety of co-participants is problematic.’
• “In full contact sports, ‘conscious disregard for the safety of the opposing player is an inherent part of the game.’ Therefore, holding a player in a full-contact sport liable for violating this standard violates the underlying rationale of the Exception, and would have a chilling effect on full-contact sport participation.
• “As the willful and wanton standard is both unworkable and contrary to the rationale in Pfister, a new standard is required.
• “Looking to Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296 (1992), the Illinois Supreme Court stated the new standard for full-contact sport liability: ‘a participant breaches a duty of care to a co-participant only if the participant intentionally injures the co-participant or engages in conduct ‘totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.’”
• “Nothing currently pled against Strevell and Zimmerman (the individual defendants) meets this standard.
• “The contact sports exception also applies to organizational defendants (coaches, officials, teams, and leagues).
• “To successfully plead a valid cause of action for ‘failing to adequately enforce the rules in an organized full-contact sport, plaintiff must allege that the defendant acted with intent to cause the injury or that the defendant engaged in conduct ‘totally outside the range of ordinary activity (internal citations to Knight)’ involved with coaching or officiating a sport.’
• “The application of the Exception to organizational defendants is not whether the organizational defendant’s conduct causes a 3rd party to violate a standard of care.
• “Nothing currently pled against the organizational defendants meets the new standard to overcome the Exception.”
Robert Karas v. Joseph Strevell et al.; S.Ct. Ill.; Docket Nos. 104123, 104133 cons.


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