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Contact Sports - Victim of 'Reckless' Rugby Tackle Due Full Damages

Participants in contact sports voluntarily accept a risk of injury – but what they do not do is submit to the threat of recklessly dangerous play. A judge powerfully made that point in the case of a young mother of two who suffered a catastrophic spinal injury during her very first competitive game of rugby.

Standing little more than five feet tall and weighing nine stone, the woman relied on her skill and speed during the match, in which she played flanker. On the other side, however, was an opponent who, although not much taller than her, had greater playing experience and weighed between 16 and 17 stone.

The woman was acting as scrum half, and was bending over to gather the ball, when the opponent came around the side of a ruck and flattened her. She was not in possession of the ball at the time and the opponent put her whole body weight into the tackle, propelling her downwards onto her bottom. She sustained a spinal fracture which left her paraplegic and wheelchair dependent for the rest of her life.

After a personal injury claim was launched against the opponent, the judge noted that injuries, even serious ones, are generally an accepted risk of contact sports, in which players of different height, stature and weight often take part. Sport, however, is not immune from the law of negligence and competitors whose play falls below an acceptable standard can be held liable.

The court noted that it was a developmental match, in which many of the players were still learning the game, and should have been played in that spirit. Players had a duty to be mindful of one another and to compete with the understanding that enjoyment and learning were the main objectives, not winning.

Some members of the opposing team, however, engaged in foul-mouthed 'trash talk' during the match and competed in an inappropriately aggressive and intimidatory manner. As the game slipped away from them, they upped their rough tactics. The opponent had been involved in an earlier 'off the ball' incident and a red mist had metaphorically descended over her eyes after she came off worst in a tackle. She had been heard to say that she would 'break' the woman.

The judge found that she was not offside when she made the fateful tackle and that she did not intend to injure the woman. Bent on exacting revenge, however, she tackled the unsuspecting woman when she was in a highly vulnerable position and unprepared to protect herself. Crushing her downwards with her full weight, the tackle was obviously dangerous and liable to cause injury.

Upholding the woman's claim, the judge found that the opponent was not attempting to play within the laws of the game but was intent on retribution. Acting recklessly, she closed her eyes to the clear and obvious risk of injury. Following the tackle, she walked away from the prostrate woman, apparently unconcerned. That, the judge observed, could not have been further from the spirit of the game. If not agreed, the amount of the woman's compensation would be assessed at a further hearing.