As a former competitive hockey player (and current men’s league player), any hockey-related legal opinions peak my interest. As a personal injury attorney in Chicago, I also make certain to stay abreast of personal injury-related legal news. Which is why I found the recent Illinois appellate court decision, Weisberg v. Chicago Steel, No. 2-08-0789 (Ill. App. Ct. 2d Dist. Dec. 31, 2009), particularly interesting.
In Weisberg, the plaintiff was employed by Chicago Acceleration and was assigned to provide athletic training services to the Chicago Steel, an amateur (“Junior A”) hockey team in the United States Hockey League (USHL). Plaintiff’s duties included refilling water bottles for the Chicago Steel players during practice. The players would notify plaintiff that the water bottles needed to be refilled by banging a hockey stick on the locker room door, and plaintiff would then go fill up the bottles at the players’ bench area next to the ice rink.
During a practice in 2004, the plaintiff was in the trainer’s room working on paperwork when he heard a player banging a stick on the locker room door. As plaintiff walked to the bench area to refill the water bottles, he was struck in the right eye by a hockey puck, which was shot by one of the Chicago Steel players. Plaintiff fractured his skull and sustained retinal tearing, which resulted in permanent vision loss.
Plaintiff filed a personal injury law complaint against the player who shot the puck and the Chicago Steel alleging negligence and willful and wanton conduct. The complaint alleged that the player was negligent by deliberately “sniping” or shooting pucks at water bottles on the bench, as plaintiff entered the bench area to refill the bottles. Plaintiff also alleged that the Chicago Steel committed negligence by failing to prevent players from shooting pucks toward the bench area.
The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the negligence claims under the “contact sports exception,” a judicially created exception to ordinary negligence claims, which provides that “voluntary participants in a contact sport may be held liable for injuries to co-participants caused by willful and wanton or intentional conduct, but not for injuries caused by ordinary negligence.” Azzano v. Catholic Bishop, 304 Ill. App. 3d 713, 716 (1999). The purpose of the contact sports exception is to ensure that the law did not place unreasonable burdens on the “free and vigorous participation in sports by our youth,” and therefore the exception was “carefully drawn” to control a new field of personal injury litigation. Nabozny v. Barnhill, 31 Ill. App. 3d 212, 215 (1975).
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the contact sports exception was not applicable because the plaintiff was not a participant in the contact sport (hockey), but rather, an athletic trainer providing training services. Alternatively, her argued that even if he was a participant, the contact sports exception did not apply because “sniping” involves conduct “totally outside the range of ordinary activities associated with ice hockey.” The appellate court agreed with the plaintiff, and reversed the trial court’s dismissal order.
The appellate court held that permitting plaintiff to maintain a cause of action against the defendants based on ordinary negligence “would not violate the spirit and purpose of the contact sports exception” for three reasons: (1) the circumstances of plaintiff’s injury; (2) the relationship of the parties to each other and the sport of hockey; and (3) such a result would not harm the sport of hockey or cause it to be changed.
With respect to the circumstances of plaintiff’s injury, the plaintiff was not a player in the sport of hockey nor otherwise affiliated with the Chicago Steel at the time of the injury. Rather, the court found that he was a “trainer employed by an independent company providing training services to the Chicago Steel and was only in the vicinity of the hockey rink during practice to replace water bottles.” Therefore, he was not a voluntary participant in the physical conduct inherent in the sport of ice hockey. The court also found that the plaintiff had an “attenuated” relationship with the defendants and with the sport of hockey.
Finally, the court found that allowing the defendants to be held liable for negligence in this case would not have a “chilling” effect on vigorous participation in the sport of hockey. According to the court, “unlike body checking, shooting pucks at water bottles located in the bench area, as opposed to shooting pucks at a goal or at other targets within the rink, is not an inherent part of the sport of hockey” and will not change the game of hockey as we commonly know it to be played.
In sum, the appellate court delivered a very well-reasoned and thoughtful opinion. I must say I support the decision, both in my capacity as a personal injury lawyer and as a hockey player. The type of “sniping” games depicted in this case are common place in hockey rinks across the country, but they are really unnecessary to the sport and, as this case proves, potentially very dangerous. Coaches and hockey organizations will have to crack down on these types of activities that pose a threat to people outside the game of hockey.
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