Torts in Sports: Maine Injury Liability for Youth Sports Assaults

Learning good sportsmanship is one of the primary purposes of youth sports. Yet all over the country – and right here in Maine – serious injuries are reported when parents, players, coaches and fans engage in violence both on and off the field.

Our Portland injury lawyers just recently read about a girls soccer field punch during a playoff game at Lisbon High School, a half hour outside Portland. A video clip (viewed more than 73,000 times on social media before it was removed) shows one player swinging at an opposing player after a scored goal. Later in the game, the clip shows that same player attack again, punching the same girl in the face. The victim fell as she tried to dodge the punch and apparently wasn’t seriously hurt, according to the Portland Press Herald. The video is being reviewed by school officials and no criminal charges have been filed. Less than a week later, the Press Herald reported yet another violent attack at a youth sports game, this time at Scarborough High School, where a 20-year-old resident allegedly stabbed a 15-year-old student in the parking lot during a soccer game half-time.

As Maine injury lawyers know, there may be few remedies available for youth sports players who suffer certain injuries in the course of the game. Depending on the nature of the sport, those injuries may be considered the inherent risk one assumes in playing. (Not always, though, so it’s best to at least discuss your rights with an attorney.) However, when an assault or battery occurs at a sporting event, either among fans or between players or even parents, coaches or referees, parties may be found liable under either negligence or intentional tort law.

Violence during youth athletic events is a serious problem. The National Association of Sports Officials reports it receives roughly 100 reports a year involving physical contact between players, fans, coaches and officials. The agency admitted this did not give a full picture of the problem, but was rather “the tip of the iceberg.”  These included incidents were referees were slugged in the face, a parent who allegedly rushed a youth football field and attempted to choke a game official, the father of a T-ball player who attacked an umpire, a parent attacking a teen hockey player who was trying to break up a fight between two other players, a basketball coach who head-butted a referee and a girls’ soccer team benched the entire season after harassing and physically threatening a fellow teenager who was refereeing.

Some media outlets have referred to this as “sports rage.” Part of the problem is the enormous importance many parents and schools place on athletic success of youth, which can come with lucrative scholarships. Tensions can also rise when parents see their child injured in the course of the sport. In many cases, sporting events simply attract too many bad actors.

Some courts have held that landowners and athletic associations that sponsor or host youth events may be held liable. To succeed with such claims, a plaintiff must first establish the landowner owed a duty of care. This is the first element of any negligence claim and it’s a tough one because as a general rule that landowners owe no duty to control the actions of third parties in order to prevent harm to someone else. However, a plaintiff can overcome this if they can establish a special relationship with the owner.

A 2000 ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court, Hills v. Bridgeview Little League Ass’n, has proved instructive as a means for considering landowner duty of care in negligence lawsuits that arise out of violence at youth sporting events. A dispute arose between an umpire and a Little League coach. The coach allegedly shouted threatening statements at the umpire throughout the game, and subsequently attacked the umpire, beating him to unconsciousness. The umpire later sued not just the coach who had attacked him for an intentional tort, but also two Little League associations, alleging direct negligence for failing to supervise and control the coach and negligent failure to protect him as the umpire. The jury decided the case in his favor and appellate court affirmed.

However, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed, finding a landowner has no duty to protect an entrant on the land from criminal assault. Furthermore, the land on which they played was not a business and thus no business invitor/invitee relationship existed. The court finally noted – and this is important – the plaintiff had not produced any evidence of the prevalence of criminal assaults on coaches or players at either Little League games or youth sports events in general. That has left open the possibility that such claims can still be successful, and a string of prior incidents could result in courts finding the associations or the landowners both owed a duty of care. In that respect, the legal threshold is similar to a claim of negligent security, which often hinges on plaintiff’s ability to show history illustrated the presence of risk of which a property owner, business or other entity had a duty to mitigate or warn.

Another possibility for a legal claim following an attack by another student, such as what happened at the Lisbon High School game, would be a claim of parental liability under 14 M.R.S.A. section 304, which allows injured plaintiffs to hold parents liable for willful or malicious damage to persons or property caused by their minor child between the ages of 7 and 17.

Our Portland injury lawyers are available to answer your questions if you or your child are injured at a Maine youth sporting event.

Contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Mother plans to file complaint alleging Lisbon player punched daughter during soccer game, Oct. 27, 2018, By Lee Hortan and Steve Craig, Portland Press Herald

More Blog Entries:

Failure to Vet Van Driver Lands Maine Town in Multiple Injury Lawsuits, Oct. 24, 2018, Portland Injury Lawyer Blog

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