New Jersey Appellate Courts Issue Game-Changing Rulings on Tort Liability In Youth Sports

As seen on ATL Redline.

Sport is often referred to as a mirror of a society.

In New Jersey, the appellate court has recently used sports to reflect modern principles of tort liability. Within the past two weeks, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued two significant rulings for civil practitioners to study.

The Court’s findings clarified that it is not unreasonable for a baseball field to lack protective fencing for spectators along the base paths and that there is no tort liability for a child who injures another child during a youth sporting event.

The opinions in Brigante v. Board of Education and C.J.R. v. G.A. involve distinct torts issues, but both bolster a defendant’s ability to avoid liability when injuries occur at sporting events.

First, in Brigante, the plaintiff went to Tenafly High School to watch her son’s freshman baseball game. As she sat in the bleachers during warm-ups, an errant throw hit her on the left side of her face. The bleachers were along the first base line and all parties agreed that there was no elevated protective fencing or warnings signs. Since this was a freshman game, there were no tickets loaded with fine print about the dangers of being a sports spectator either.

The trial court granted Defendant Tenafly’s motion for summary judgment because the Plaintiff had failed to establish that the Defendant’s conduct in not erecting protective fencing and posting warnings was “palpably unreasonable.”

To impose liability on a public entity such as Tenafly High School, the Court explained that a plaintiff must prove “the existence of a dangerous condition, that the condition proximately caused the injury, that it created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, that either the dangerous condition was caused by a negligent employee or the entity knew about the condition, and that the entity’s conduct was palpably unreasonable.” Vincitore v. N.J. Sports & Exposition Auth., 169 N.J. 119, 125 (2001).

Since the Defendant did not dispute that the Plaintiff was injured by the wild throw, the Court had to determine if the baseball field was in a dangerous condition and, if so, whether the failure to correct it was palpably unreasonable. The Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3, defines “dangerous condition” as “a condition of property that creates a substantial risk of injury when such property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.” N.J.S.A. 59:4-1a. “Thus the standard is whether any member of the general public who foreseeably may use the property would be exposed to the risk created by the alleged dangerous condition.” Vincitore, supra, 169 N.J. at 125.

The Court ultimately concluded that there are no set objective standards by which to measure whether an athletic field is dangerous, and thus, no means to prove that the Defendant acted in a palpably unreasonable manner by not utilizing baseline fencing and warning signs.

In addition to finding that fencing is not necessary around baseball fields, the Court also ruled that minors cannot be held liable for injuring other minors during a sporting event in C.J.R.

The two young competitors can rest easy knowing that their ensuing battle will not result in tort liability in New Jersey.

The C.J.R. case involved an 11-year-old lacrosse player who allegedly struck a 12-year-old opponent during a game and broke his arm. G.A. charged C.J.R. in the final seconds of a game and blindsided the young player with a cross-check. C.J.R. broke his arm and had to undergo open reduction surgery to implant a metal rod into his arm.

C.J.R. and his father, Christopher Rees, sued in Burlington County Superior Court, alleging G.A. acted recklessly and should thus be held liable under the same tort liability principles that govern adult sporting events. The trial judge granted the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment because the youth attacker was too young to understand the rules of the game and the consequences of his behavior.

On appeal, the Appellate Division recognized that this was a case of first impression. However, it noted that the state Supreme Court recognized a recklessness standard for adult athletes in Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494 (1994), where a base runner crashed into the catcher at home plate during an adult pickup softball game, and Schick v. Ferolito, 767 A.2d 962 (N.J. 2001), where a golfer was hit in the head by a tee shot. The appeals panel also indicated that children younger than 7 are protected from tort liability by a rebuttable presumption that they are incapable of negligence. Above that age, a fact-sensitive and context-specific approach applies.

According to the New Jersey Law Journal, the Court took judicial notice that children often need years to learn the rules of a sport and will inevitably commit fouls because of “inexperience, youthful exuberance, lack of self-discipline, clumsiness, immaturity, frustration,” or some combination of those things. That propensity is compounded in sports, such as lacrosse, that have complicated rules and a high degree of physical contact, making it unfair to hold them to the same standards as adult athletes. Further, it would unduly discourage youth participation if the prospect of a lawsuit cropped up “every time that a referee calls a foul on a child who is learning how to play the game.”

Ultimately, Judge Jack Sabatino concluded that minors have no tort liability for injuring others within a youth sporting event.

Given that children are not liable for injuring others and property owners are not liable for a lack of protective fencing, it might be time to permanently wear a helmet when visiting New Jersey.

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