How Does the Contact Sports Exception Affect Youth Sports Injury Cases?

Youth athletics are an important part of American culture, but the potential for injury is very high. Especially in sports like football, many young athletes face potentially serious and even life-threatening injuries. Illinois negligence law has an exception concerning injuries sustained through participation in contact sports. This presents a difficult and often confusing situation for families and athletes injured while playing sports. All of the considerations these cases necessitate just compound the stress experienced when a loved one is injured. What is the Contact Sports Exception? Due to the voluntary nature of contact sports, the courts have created an exception for negligence claims in Illinois. Contact sport participants may be held liable for injuries to others caused by willful and wanton or intentional conduct. Ordinary negligence, however, is considered to be an inherent part of contact sports. At the most fundamental level, the contact sports exception to Illinois’ negligence laws is a judicially created exception. This means that courts have created a systematic method for assessing negligence related to injuries in contact sports. This exception was not written into the statute by the state legislature. How and Why the Exception was Created and Later Expanded  The courts, as public institutions, have a duty to take public policy considerations into account when interpreting statutory law. The Illinois Supreme Court rendered a decision in the case of Pfister v. Shusta, which provides the rationale for the exception. In this case, a college student was injured during an informal game and the court barred the student from recovering damages under an ordinary negligence claim. The Illinois Supreme Court in the Pfister decision intended to strike a balance between society’s interest in limiting liability for injuries sustained through physical contact inherent to a contact sport and allowing recovery for injuries caused by intentional misconduct. They asserted that participants in games such as soccer, football, softball, basketball, or any game involving potential physical contact are assuming responsibility for the associated risks. In 2008, the Illinois Supreme Court rendered a decision in the case of Karas v. Strevell. In this case, a hockey player was injured during a game when checked from behind. However, at the time of the accident the league had a rule in place prohibiting body checks, even printing, “STOP” onto the backs of jerseys. The plaintiff in Karas sued the players who caused the injury, the opposing hockey team, the hockey officials’ organization, and the hockey league. Their claim of negligence rested on the assertion that the defendants acted with willful and wonton conduct. The Supreme Court threw out the plaintiff’s claims against all of the defendants. Simply stated, their decision was that rules violations do not constitute willful negligence as defined in Pfister. These are an inherent part of the sport, which is evidenced by the presence of officials who monitor and punish rules violations. How Recent Cases Impact the Contact Sports Exception Recent decisions in the Illinois Appellate Court have declined to expand this exception. In Weisberg v. Chicago Steel (2009), an athletic trainer working for an outside company was struck in the face by a hockey puck while in the bench area refilling water bottles. Because the trainer was not doing anything inherent to the sport, the exception was not applied. Many parents and athletes may be unaware that schools and youth athletics leagues in Illinois are shielded in some cases from liability in personal injury cases arising out of sports injuries. Especially in cases where an athlete sustains a traumatic brain injury, it is important to get the best representation possible.