California Drops the Ball: The Lack of a Clear Approach to Recklessness in Sport Injury Litigation
Virginia Sports and Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, p. 77, 2011
40 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2016
Date Written: Fall 2011
California jurisprudence lacks a uniform, clear, and manageable approach to recklessness in sport injury cases. In Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296 (1992), the California Supreme Court adopted a unique “duty” approach for primary assumption of risk cases involving sports. The Court ruled that a plaintiff’s subjective knowledge and awareness of risks were irrelevant. Instead, the Court noted that the focus of the inquiry should be whether “in light of the nature of the sporting activity in which defendant and plaintiff were engaged, defendant’s conduct breached a legal duty of care to plaintiff.” Under the new duty approach, although there is no duty to protect a plaintiff from risks inherent in the sport itself, participants, coaches, and instructors will be liable for intentionally injuring the plaintiff or engaging in conduct that is “so reckless as to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport.” In the past two decades, California recklessness cases involving coaches and sport participants have become confusing. Courts lack a uniform approach and continue to apply different standards for recklessness.
First, courts have difficulty applying the California Supreme Court’s definition of recklessness, which requires courts to determine whether conduct is “totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport.” This standard provides no guidance to the court or to the trier of fact who must distinguish reckless conduct from negligent or careless conduct. Second, courts are confused by the relationship between the concepts of recklessness and inherent risk. The concept of inherent risk is critical to the application of the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Inherent risk defines duty, and a defendant has no duty to protect plaintiff from risks inherent in the sport. However, because recklessness requires conduct “totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport,” does a finding that plaintiff was injured by a risk inherent in the sport preclude a finding of recklessness? When a court rules that a risk is not inherent, is the court also saying the risk is “totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport”? Third, California’s courts are confused by the relationship, if any, between recklessness and the defendant’s duty not to increase the risk. Are these duties essentially the same when defendant is a coach or sport participant? If not, may courts and plaintiff’s attorneys use the duty not to increase the risk as a vehicle to bypass the intentional/reckless standard and instead apply a negligence standard to coaches and participants in sport injury cases?
Fourth, some courts of appeal, perhaps frustrated by the lack of a clear standard for recklessness, have traveled beyond the California Supreme Court’s recklessness definition and have used different standards to determine whether a defendant’s conduct was reckless. Some courts have used the Restatement of Torts to define recklessness in sports injury cases. Other courts have used a policy-based test for recklessness.
The confusion can be significantly decreased, and perhaps eliminated, if the courts adopt a uniform, policy-based approach to inherent risk and use the Restatement standard for recklessness in sport injury cases. Under the policy-based approach to inherent risk, a risk is inherent if the prohibition of the defendant’s conduct would neither chill vigorous participation in the sport or activity nor alter the nature of the sport or activity. California courts also should use the Restatement standard for recklessness in sport injury cases. The Restatement approach can be used as a recklessness standard in sport injury cases without difficulty if the question of recklessness is raised, as it should be, after the court has applied the policy-based test for inherent risk, suggested above. Finally, the courts should abandon the defendant’s duty not to increase the risk beyond what is inherent in a sport. The duty not to increase the risk is unnecessary and only increases confusion.
Keywords: California jurisprudence, recklessness, sport injury, sports, inherent risk, assumption of risk, Restatement of Torts
JEL Classification: K10, K13
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation