Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Laws are the law...

In an effort to report about relevant sports law, here is an oldie but one of the few American cases involving the sport of rugby, D'Agostino v. Karjewsi, 89 CIV. 0131 (S.D.N.Y. 1990) [UNPUBLISHED]. Before I recite the facts, let me just say that every sport (even wiffle ball) has cases of injury and foul play. This case does not reflect on Rugby as a whole, rugby players, etc... Rather, it is one unfortunate incident. However, there is a lesson for all players... the Laws of the Game are the law.

In 1988, Old Blue RFC and Mystic River RFC were playing a game at the Can-AM Rugby Tournament. During the game, a Mystic player was lying on the ball during a ruck. The sir called the penalty and blew the whistle to stop play. After the whistle, an Old Blue player the defendant "ran towards" the player on the ground and kicked him in the face. The sir penalized Old Blue and sent the player off immediately.

The injured player later sued the player who kicked him, Old Blue Rugby Club, its Captain and officers (on the theory that they were negligent in recruitment and discipline of the player (who was a professional playing in an amateur game), the tournament organizers (because they were negligent in inviting Old Blue to play in the tournament and should have been aware of Old Blue's reputation for violence).

The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit based on the "assumption of risk" doctrine --i.e. that the player, by entering the rugby game, understood the risks and by playing the game "consented to those injury-causing events which are known, apparent or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation." This doctrine is generally true, but where the conduct which causes injury was "reckless or intentional" the person can be held liable and potentially those individuals (like the team captain/officers/coaches) who knew or should have known about the player's propensity to play outside the rules.

In denying the motion to dismiss, the court noted that the injury occurred after the whistle had stopped play for the first penalty. The question of whether the injury was "foreseeable" (and therefore within the "assumption of risk" doctrine) depends on factors, including but not limited to "the ultimate purpose of the game and the method or methods of winning it; the relationship between the defendant's conduct to the game's ultimate purpose, especially his conduct with respect to rules and customs whose purpose is to enhance safety of the participants; and the equipment involved in playing the game."

In analyzing these factors, court noted that the type of play involved in the case (i.e. kicking a player after the whistle had blown) had no relationship to the rules of the game of rugby:

Although rugby is an inherently rough contact sport, the act of kicking someone after play has been stopped has no relation to a team's ultimate purpose of gaining possession of or advancing the ball.

Furthermore, such an act is a flagrant violation of the rules of rugby, which state "it is illegal for any player willfully to hack or kick an opponent or to trip him with the foot, or to trample on the opponent lying on the ground."

Therefore, because the player's conduct was flagrantly outside of the laws of Rugby, the judge allowed the claim to proceed to trial. Moreover, the court found that there were material issues of fact as to whether Old Blue, its officer and captain and the tournament organizers should have known that this player had a tendency to flagrantly violate the Laws of rugby when playing.

The lesson for coaches and players should be obvious. We can't tolerate dangerous play and coaches must be sure to discipline players appropriately (i.e. suspending players who have been issued red cards by the sir) and instructing players regarding proper play.

Let me just say one more time -- this isn't a rugby issue. The Court's ruling was actually based on an suit involving jockeys and horse racing, Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432 (1986).

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