Duty of Participant to Other Participants and Spectators of Sports

While it is clear that sports come in all shapes and sizes, they are all bound by the fact that injury can occur as a participant or spectator. Nearly every sport requires physical motion of the participant, and therefore it is foreseeable that this motion, and the resulting action caused by this motion, could result in injury of the participant himself, another participant, or a spectator.

The questions are:

  1. How does a person availing themselves to the dangerous consequences of a sport effect liability?

  2. How do we determine if a participant's actions that led to an injury of another were tortious or merely a justified accident?

Perhaps, to a degree, all participants and spectators assume a risk of injury while participating or watching the sport. Texas courts have accounted for these considerations with the competitive sports doctrine, a legal doctrine which adjusts the duty owed in sports injury cases according to the inherent risks of participating in a given sport.

Texas Law

The Texas Supreme Court has not yet decided the exact standard of care a defendant owes in a personal injury claim by a Plaintiff who is a sports participant. However, most Texas courts of appeals have issued opinions giving light as to how the competitive sports doctrine is applied in Texas courts. These courts have held that when the defendant is a participant in the sport, the defendant does not owe a general negligence duty to the plaintiff. Typically, the defendant may only be held liable for reckless or intentional conduct. Monk v. Phillips, 983 S.W.2d 323, 325 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 1998, pet. denied). In Monk, a plaintiff was struck in the eye with a golf ball while playing golf. The court held that the plaintiff assumed the risk of their golf game by participating in the sport, and that he could not recover because there was no evidence that defendant golfer acted recklessly or intentionally.

Similarly, in Chrismon v. Brown, 246 S.W.3d 102, 104-05 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2007, no pet.), a softball assistant coach was struck with a flying bat that had slipped out of another coach's hands. The Chrismon court held that there are three separate considerations that determine the duty owed in sports related injury cases. The three different duties of care described by the court are:

  1. A sports participant owes no negligence duty to another sports participant regarding risks inherent in the sport in question;

  2. A sports participant owes a negligence duty to another sports participant regarding risks that are not inherent in that sport; and

  3. Regardless of whether the risk is inherent, a sports participant owes a duty not to cause injury to another sports participant by gross negligence or intentional conduct.

These three scenarios seem to provide the most instructive analysis as to what duty of care is owed by a defendant in a case where the competitive sports doctrine applies. If the injury is sustained by one of the inherent risks of the sport, the defendant owes no negligence duty and can only be held liable if his conduct rises to the level of gross negligence. But if the injury is sustained by a risk outside the scope of the inherent risks of the sport, a defendant will still owe a negligence duty to the plaintiff. While the Texas Supreme Court has not yet adopted this reasoning, other Texas courts have adopted this interpretation of the competitive sports doctrine. See Dunagan v. Coleman, 427 S.W.3d 552, 556 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2014, no writ.)(holding that the standards of care described by the 14th Circuit in Chrismon were a proper interpretation of the competitive sports doctrine).

Our society has placed a strong value on sports because of all the benefits we gain from them. While sports provide exercise, entertainment, teamwork building, and many other skills that translate into other areas of life, there is nearly always a risk of injury involved. Texas courts understand this, and have agreed that for a defendant to owe an ordinary negligence duty, the injury must have come from an action which was not inherent in the sport. Otherwise, an injury sustained by an inherent risk in the sport must be caused by gross negligence or intentional conduct.

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