Injuries in Sports: who’s responsible?

Everyone who has played or watched sports knows that, unfortunately, it is common for players to get injured. Even in non-contact sports such as baseball and bicycling, there are still hundreds of thousand injuries, and multiple fatalities reported every year, according to statistics published by Johns Hopkins Medicine[1]. While many of these injuries are minor sprains and strains, it is common to break bones and tear ligaments, even playing recreational sports.

Despite numerous precautions, years of training, and teams of world-renowned doctors at their disposal, there is still a significant risk of serious or life-threatening injury at the professional level. A recent example is Buffalo Bill’s safety Damar Hamlin suffering cardiac arrest after a routine tackle.

When the injuries become serious and threaten to end a player’s career or worse, his or her life, the public and the media often question the legal aspects of sports injuries and ask, “who’s responsible?” To get a better picture, let’s examine Damar Hamlin’s injuries under the framework of New Jersey liability.

Damar’s accident occurred after an opposing wide receiver, Tee Higgins, hit Damar during a fair tackle. Because Tee was involved in the injury, many people placed the blame on him and assumed that he would be liable for Damar’s injury. However, this is not necessarily the case.

When someone willingly plays sports, they accept the risk that they might be injured, and the law agrees. This is where the legal doctrine of volenti non fit injuria comes into play. Translated from Latin, this means, ‘to a willing person, it is not wrong.’ More commonly, volenti non fit injuria is referred to as “assumption of risk.” This doctrine asserts that if someone is participating in an activity that they know could be dangerous, then they cannot pursue legal action for injuries that occur within the scope of the activity. However, the doctrine is not absolute and permits recovery if the injuring party acted grossly negligently or with reckless intent. In Damar’s case, when he stepped onto the field, he knew and accepted the risks of being injured.

The key phrase is ‘within the scope of the activity.’ Since Tee’s hit was not a foul or done with the intent of hurting Damar, it falls within the scope of what could reasonably happen when playing football. Tee did not act grossly negligent or with reckless intent. Tee Higgins is likely not liable for Hamlin’s injuries.

If Higgins isn’t responsible, then who is? Can Damar legally blame the coaching staff or the medical team?

The coaching staff or medical team are probably not liable for Damar’s injuries either. The staff would likely only be responsible if they knew, or suspected Hamlin had a condition that would lead to injury, and they forced him to play anyway. An example of this would be if the coach forced Hamlin to play with a concussion or the medical team ignored blatant signs of trauma.

Another situation that could result in liability of the staff members is if they knowingly gave Damar defective equipment or failed to follow the regulations for inspecting and reusing protective gear.

Neither seems to be the case with Hamlin’s injury as doctors think the hit caused Commitio Corditis, a rare phenomenon where the heart stops with relatively low force if hit at the right angle in a 20-millisecond time frame. Commitio Corditis is not a predictable or common condition that the staff could have known about before the incident.

So, what if you or a family member are injured playing sports?

For a cause of action to arise from a sports related injury, the injury must occur outside the scope of the sport, or as a result of grossly negligent/reckless behavior. However, even if you or your loved one are unable to recover damages, your medical bills will likely be covered through your personal insurance policy.

If you or a family member gets injured while playing sports, you should contact a personal injury lawyer to investigate and see if you have a case.

[1] Sports injury statistics, JHM (2019), (last visited Aug 3, 2023).