New Jersey Appeals Court Affirms Strong Standard For Youth Sports Tort Liability

Injuries are a part of sports. Period. End of story.

However, in America, when an injury occurs, most people look for someone else to not only blame, but to also sue. In the past two years, personal injury lawsuits arising out of youth sports injuries have crowded the New Jersey dockets.

After issuing two game-changing rulings on civil tort liability for sports injuries in 2014, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division is back at it this month in an interesting case involving youth soccer.

In G.C. v. New Jersey Youth Soccer, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1566, a 12-year-old soccer player sustained a knee injury when a 13-year-old opponent tripped him toward the end of a game. The Plaintiff, G.C. was dribbling the ball toward the goal to take a shot, when the opponent tried to steal the ball. In what sounds like a slide-tackle gone awry, T.U. injured G.C. and drew a yellow card. However, the referee testified that T.U. was making a play on the ball, but ended up kicking G.C. after the shot.

The injured child’s parents sued everyone under the sun including T.U., two other minors, the coaches, Philadelphia Insurance Companies, New Jersey Youth Soccer, Morris County Youth Soccer Association, and many others. Essentially, every entity except the soccer ball itself was named in this lawsuit. G.C.’s parents alleged general negligence along with reckless and intentional conduct warranting punitive damages.

However, the Defendants successfully moved for Summary Judgment, which G.C. then appealed. Judges Marianne Espinosa and Heidi Currier heard the appeal.

To decide whether summary judgment was proper or not, the Appellate Division utilized the standard first expressed in a 2014 case I detailed previously called C.J.R. v. G.A., 105 A.3d 628 (App. Div. 2014). In CJR, a minor lacrosse player sought to hold an 11-year-old opponent liable for injuries sustained when he was struck in the arm by the opponent’s stick. The Court then set out a “double-layered approach” to apply in the circumstances of a minor injuring another minor in a sporting activity as follows:

“(1) whether the opposing player’s injurious conduct would be actionable if it were committed by an adult, evaluating whether there is sufficient proof of the defendant player’s intent to inflict bodily injury or recklessness; and if so (2) whether it would be reasonable in the particular youth sports setting to expect a minor of the same age and characteristics as the defendant to refrain from the injurious physical contact.”

Using that analysis, the Court found that summary judgment was proper in CJR and in GC. Although the defendant minor received a yellow card and GC shockingly spent the money on a liability expert to opine that the 13-year-old’s conduct constituted “serious foul play,” the Court was not persuaded. It agreed with the trial judge that there was no evidence to support the requisite degree of recklessness for a poor attempt at stealing the ball.

New Jersey law holds that reckless conduct is “an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation in which a high degree of danger is apparent.” Shick v. Ferolito, 767 A.2d 262 (N.J. 2001).

Although a jury never had the chance to determine whether the facts of this 13-year-old trying to prevent a last-second soccer shot was reckless, ultimately the Court was right. There has to be a high standard for tort liability in youth sports since youth sometimes cannot control themselves like adults. That does not mean all injuries are excusable, but I also don’t expect a 13-year-old in New Jersey to have a slide tackle like Sergio Ramos. We have all seen kids raise their hockey sticks too high or a young football player tackle without proper technique. Holding them and their clubs liable for inevitable mistakes is not a road we should travel anytime soon.

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