Dunagan v. Coleman
No. 05-12-00171-CV, 2014 Tex.App. LEXIS 3712 (Tex.App.-Dallas, April 7, 2014).
In an opinion released on April 7, 2014, the Dallas Court of Appeals clarified the standards of care that apply to tort cases based upon injuries sustained while participating in a sport.
Dunagan and Coleman were friends and teammates on a slow-pitch softball team. Dunagan was one of the better players in the league, as he had played baseball throughout high school. While warming up before a game, Dunagan asked Coleman to catch for him. Dunagan had not pitched in several weeks and wanted to "locate the plate." Coleman agreed and crouched in the catcher's position behind home plate.
Dunagan threw a series of underhand pitches, before throwing two overhand curve balls. Dunagan then threw a rising fastball, which Coleman attempted to catch but missed. The ball hit Coleman in the mouth causing significant injuries. Coleman then sued Dunagan for negligence and gross negligence.
The Court's Analysis:
The jury was given two liability questions: (1) ordinary negligence and (2) reckless conduct. The jury found Dunagan liable for both negligence and reckless conduct, and awarded approximately $500,000 in damages. Dunagan appealed.
The Dallas Court of Appeals was faced with the issue of what standard of care applies for tort liability in sports injury cases. Dunagan argued that he should not be liable for Coleman's injuries because they resulted from an inherent risk in the sport. The Court agreed.
It clarified that a previous case had not entirely abolished the ordinary negligence standard of care by participants in a sports activity regardless of the nature of the conduct. Instead, the ordinary negligence standard does not apply to conduct in a sporting activity when the act complained of is "an integral part" of the sport and the injury is the consequence of such a risk is "inherent" or "built in" to the sport. For those risks, and those risks only, there is no duty of ordinary care.
The Court discussed how one of the inherent risks in softball is that a thrown ball will hit and injure a fellow participant. While Dunagan threw a hard fastball in a slow-pitch softball league, the force of the throw only goes to whether Dunagan's conduct was reckless or grossly negligent. It does not change the fact that being hit by a pitch is an "inherent risk" of playing softball.
The Court also found that even though the injury occurred during warm-ups, that conduct still occurred while playing softball. It would be impractical and would defeat the purpose of practice to force participants to conduct themselves differently in training and warm-ups than they would in games. The Court also discussed that while Dunagan's statement that he wanted to "locate the plate" indicated he was concerned about his accuracy, that does not constitute recklessness because inaccuracy is to be expected in every sport. For these reasons, the Court found that (1) the ordinary negligence standard of care did not apply to this case, and (2) the facts of this case did not support a finding of recklessness.
What to Take Away:
This case protects participants from liability for injuries that are the result of an inherent risk in a sport. It is a logical decision. While a person can be liable for negligence or assault when tackling someone on the sidewalk, a football player cannot be liable for injuring another player when he tackles him during a game or practice.
It does, however, leave open the possibility for liability when the act complained of is not an "inherent risk" of the sport itself. Could fighting be considered an "inherent risk" of a sport? Perhaps the answer might be different in hockey than it would in bowling