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Court Holds Student Didn’t Assume Risk of Hallway Injury When She Joined the School Soccer Team

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21 January 2015

A 12-year-old girl was a member of her school’s soccer team who sustained injuries during an indoor practice. On the date of the accident, soccer practice was held indoors because it was raining outside. Among other activities, the coach of the soccer team paired up students to run a sprint against each other in a school hallway, which measured approximately 150 feet in length. The coach determined that the finish line would be a space past an open set of double doors. Approximately 10 feet beyond the double doors, directly ahead of the racing path, was a hard wall.

The girl testified that the team had not held practice in the hallway before, that she had never raced down that hallway, and that she was in the first pair to sprint. According to the girl, the coach told the students that the loser of the race would have to run laps up and down stairs. She sprinted down the hallway at full speed, tried to slow down at the unmarked finish line between the double doors, but was unable to stop, causing her face to strike the wall.

The girl’s parents sued the school on behalf of their injured daughter to recover damages for the girl’s personal injuries, asserting that the school failed to provide adequate supervision and was negligent in failing to exercise reasonable care to protect the girl from injuries resulting from unreasonably increased risks. After the completion of discovery, the school moved for summary judgment based upon the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. The lower court granted the motion. Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Second Department explained that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk is not a defense based on a plaintiff's culpable conduct, but, rather, is a measure of the defendant's duty of care to participants in certain types of athletic or recreational activities. Under this theory, a plaintiff who freely accepts a known risk commensurately negates any duty on the part of the defendant to safeguard him or her from the risk. The Court stated that there was no dispute that the girl voluntarily participated on her school's soccer team, a sponsored athletic activity. The Court pointed out, however, that pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, a voluntary participant in a sporting or recreational activity, consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation. 

In assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants' negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport. The Court further explained that “primary assumption of risk doctrine does not serve as a bar to liability if the risk is unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased.” 

Additionally, the Court indicate that, school employees must exercise ordinary reasonable care to protect student athletes voluntarily involved in extracurricular sports from those unassumed, concealed or unreasonably increased risks.

The Second Department held that defendant failed to establish that by voluntarily participating as a member of her school soccer team, the girl consented to the risks of racing in the school hallway. The Second Department further held that defendant did not establish that the commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of soccer generally and flow from such participation on the soccer team included the risks of running into a wall while racing in the school hallway. Accordingly, the Second Department reversed the lower court’s decision and denied the defendant’s motion.

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