The Supreme Court of Utah took a novel approach to “exceptions to liability arising out of sports injuries” when it affirmed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the claim of an injured basketball player who sued another basketball player whose actions led to his injury.
In essence, the high court adopted its own version of the contact sports exception, which is used in many other jurisdictions. It’s version “does not turn on the defendant’s state of mind, or … limited to just contact sports.”
Instead, it established “a simpler framework” that hinges on the inherent nature of the sport and applies to all sports, even tennis, which the court cited as an example.
The incident leading to the lawsuit occurred in a basketball game when the plaintiff, Judd Nixon, rose up to take a shot, and was fouled by defendant Edward Clay. Nixon landed awkwardly and suffered a knee injury.
Nixon sued and Clay moved for summary judgment. The district court granted his motion and “adopted a contact sports exception that provides that participants in bodily contact sports are liable for injuries only when the injuries are the result of conduct that demonstrates a ‘willful’ or ‘reckless disregard for the safety of the other player.’” Nixon appealed.
After affirming the ruling on slightly different grounds, the high court went on to “offer some commentary aimed at aiding our courts in the application of our holding.”
The court reviewed national case law that supports the contact sports exception, agreeing the time was right to adopt an “exception to tort liability for certain injuries arising out of voluntary participation in sports.
“But we do not deem it appropriate to require proof that a defendant’s conduct was reckless or intentional.” Nor did the court believe it “necessary to limit the exception to an arbitrary subcategory of contact sports.”
Elaborating on the first point in the above paragraph, the court noted that “if the defendant causes injury with conduct not inherent in the sport, he or she should face liability under ordinary tort principles. A participant’s state of mind may be relevant to the inherency inquiry, but a showing of intentional or reckless conduct is not necessary. If a participant in a sport-initiated contact for the sole purpose of injuring a co-participant, for example, and not for a purpose that is strategic to or inherent in the game, that may suggest that the conduct was not inherent. And merely negligent acts, on the other hand, may more often be seen as inherent.”
The court added that “when determining whether contact, prohibited or not by the rules, is an inherent risk of the sport, courts should consider factors like the frequency at which this type of conduct occurs, the circumstances in which it occurred, whether the contact is an aspect of the regular strategy of the game, and the severity of the sanction imposed by game officials.”
Regarding a blanket adoption of all sports, not just those deemed contact sports, the court opined that “the amount and degree of contact inherent in a sport is not the key inquiry. The key question is whether the contact that did occur is inherent in the sport.”
Judd Nixon v. Edward Clay; Sup, Ct. Utah; No. 20170532; 7/11/19
The full case can be viewed at https://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/Nixon%20v.%20Clay20190711_20170532_32.pdf