The Viability of the Assumption of the Risk Doctrine in School Sports
Participation in school sports is an integral part of the educational experience for many students. However, with the inherent risks involved in athletic activities, the question arises as to what extent schools can be held liable for injuries suffered by student athletes. The “assumption of the risk” doctrine provides a legal framework for assessing the liability of schools in such cases. In this article, we provide a brief overview of the viability of the assumption of the risk doctrine as it applies to school sports in New York State.
Understanding the Assumption of the Risk Doctrine
The assumption of the risk doctrine is a legal principle that recognizes individuals' voluntary consent to engage in a potentially dangerous activity, absolving defendants of liability for injuries resulting from the known risks. The doctrine is based on the rationale that if an individual is aware of and willingly participates in an activity with inherent risks, they should bear the full responsibility for any injuries that may occur. In New York State, the assumption of the risk doctrine has historically been recognized and applied in various contexts, including recreational activities and sports. However, this doctrine is not without limitations and exceptions.
Implies vs. Express Assumption of the Risk
Implied assumption of the risk occurs when a plaintiff's conduct suggests that they voluntarily accepted the known risks associated with an activity. In the context of school sports, students, parents, and guardians are generally required to sign consent forms or waivers before participating, acknowledging the potential risks involved. By signing these documents, they expressly assume the inherent dangers associated with the sport, potentially releasing the school's liability.
Standard of Care and Duty to Supervise
Generally, schools have a duty to provide a safe environment for their students, including those involved in sports activities. This duty includes implementing reasonable safety measures, providing proper equipment, and ensuring adequate supervision. The assumption of the risk doctrine does not absolve schools of their responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent injuries. If a school fails to fulfill its duty to supervise or maintain a safe environment, they may still be held liable for resulting injuries.
Comparative Negligence and Contributory Fault
New York also follows the principle of comparative negligence, which allows a plaintiff to recover damages even if they are partially at fault for their injuries. In cases where a student's negligence contributed to their own injuries, the jury may apportion fault between the student and the school, reducing the damages awarded accordingly. This principle emphasizes that the assumption of the risk doctrine must be considered alongside other legal doctrines.
Should the Assumption of the Risk Doctrine Be Abandoned?
Recently, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, over two dissenting opinions, one of which argued the implied assumption of risk doctrine should be abandoned, determined the dismissal of one of the school sports assumption of risk cases before it (Secky) should be affirmed and the dismissal of the other (Grady) should be reversed because it raised unresolved questions of fact: “In Grady material issues of fact remain to be resolved by a jury. * * * [P]laintiff has raised triable questions of fact regarding whether the drill, as conducted here and with the use of the seven-by-seven-foot screen, ‘was unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent’ in baseball … .” Grady v. Chenango Valley Cent. Sch. Dist., 2023 NY Slip Op 02142, ¶ 3. As such, the assumption of risk doctrine remains the law of the state but, given the recent dissenting opinion and increased scrutiny, we will continue monitoring future court decisions analyzing these issues.
In New York State, the assumption of the risk doctrine has played a significant role in determining the liability of schools for injuries sustained in school sports. While the doctrine recognizes that participants assume certain risks inherent in the activity, it does not always absolve schools of their duty to provide a safe environment or protect against reckless conduct. The viability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in school sports cases ultimately depends on the specific circumstances and the court's evaluation of the school's compliance with its duty to supervise and maintain safety.
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About the author: Peter J. Gregory is a partner with MCCM Personal Injury Lawyers in Rochester, NY. He is a trial lawyer with extensive experience resolving disputes in state and federal trial courts. As a personal injury lawyer, Gregory focuses on advising clients who have been injured or lost loved ones in accidents caused by the carelessness or recklessness of others. Please feel free to contact him directly at email@example.com or (585) 512-3506.
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