Can You File a Sports Injury Claim or Lawsuit? How to Determine Liability

You deserve full compensation for sports injuries caused by negligence. We unpack how to prove liability and file a strong insurance claim.

An average of 8.6 million sports and recreation-related injuries happen every year. As many as one-third of the people injured were hospitalized due to the severity of their injuries.¹

You may not be hospitalized for a sports injury, but that concussion or broken leg will still cost you in terms of medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and time missed from work.

Amateur athletes are often injured accidentally. But when you’re injured because of another party’s negligence, you may be entitled to compensation for your expenses and suffering.

When Can You Sue for Sports Injuries?

Athletes, both professional and amateur players, can get hurt. Normally, no one is to blame if you jam your finger catching a football or fall and break a wrist while ice skating. Accidents happen.

However, accidental injuries occur within the normal scope of the sport in question. When you or your child are injured because another party involved in the sport did something wrong, or failed to take reasonable action to prevent harm, you may have grounds for a personal injury lawsuit.

Another party may be liable for your injuries when:

  • The circumstances leading to the injury were out of the bounds of ordinary risk assumed by the players
  • The injury was due to the negligence or carelessness of the instructor or coach
  • The injury resulted from the use of faulty sports equipment
  • The injury was caused by playing on a court or field that is in an unsafe condition
  • The owner or operator of the sports facility did not have standard safety measures to reduce the risk of harm to players

Negligent schools, facility owners, personal trainers, coaches, and other players can be held financially responsible for sports-related injuries.

Sports injuries can have long-term implications and can derail a young person’s career options. High school sports athletes who suffer a head injury, or blow out a knee, ankle, or shoulder may lose the opportunity for an athletic scholarship at college.

It helps to understand some legal terms:

“Duty of Care” means a legal obligation to avoid causing harm to others. A sports facility owner has a legal obligation to ensure the playing area is free of hazards.

“Negligence” happens when a property owner, team owner, coach, personal trainer, or other player fails in their duty of care.

“Liability” means responsibility. The negligent party, like a coach, could be liable for an injured player’s damages if the injuries were directly caused by improper coaching.

“Damages” for sports injuries can include medical costs, out-of-pocket medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Premises Liability for Sports Injuries

Every state has premises liability laws, meaning property owners have a legal obligation to keep their property safe for visitors.

When your injury wasn’t caused by the sport but happened because of an unsafe condition on the field or surrounding area, the property owner can be held financially responsible. This includes:

  • Failing to remove rocks and fill in holes
  • Having inadequate or malfunctioning lighting
  • Failing to remove debris
  • Failing to remove ice or snow

Injuries Caused by Defective Equipment

Many sports are played wearing appropriate sports equipment like helmets, pads, face masks, and other protective gear. When helmets, masks, straps, or pads give way, the result can be disastrous.

Sports equipment isn’t limited to what the participant wears. Defective bats, skates, balls, and a myriad of other equipment can fail, causing injuries.

Design defects or manufacturing flaws in sports safety equipment can result in catastrophic injuries. Some of the most serious sports injuries are traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and permanent joint damage.

You have the right to recover damages from the manufacturing company for injuries caused by defective products.

Unreasonable or Malicious Behavior

People can get pretty worked up over team sports, even in pee-wee leagues.

Most folks channel their excitement by cheering louder for their team or playing harder to win. Yet every year we see headlines of parents and coaches brawling at kid’s games, or see pro players penalized for vicious, illegal hits.

A hard tackle during scrimmage is one thing. But if you or your child are physically attacked at a sporting event, you’re probably eligible to bring assault and battery claims against the person who hurt you.

If the coach, school, or sports facility was negligent, you have grounds for claims against the facility. For example, if your daughter was beaten up by another girl at a skating rink, the facility may be liable if the other girl had been warned for fighting in the past, and the facility did not ban her from entering.

If your child is injured by the deliberate acts of another child, you may be able to hold the child’s parents liable.

Injuries Caused by Negligent Coaches

Coaches have a duty of care to protect players from undue harm. For example, pushing players to practice without enough water or rest breaks can make the coach liable for a player’s heatstroke.

Coaching duties include providing safe equipment, adequate supervision, ensuring that the players are properly instructed, and warning the players and their parents (if the players are minors) of the risks associated with the sport.

Coaches have a duty to prevent injuries and to take prompt, appropriate action when a medical emergency occurs. For instance, high school coaches should enforce concussion prevention and response protocol to protect children from serious brain injuries.

A coach who fails to do what a reasonable coach would do after a medical emergency may be held liable for their negligence.

Case Example:  Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against NBA

Zeke Upshaw was a 26-year-old basketball player with the Detroit Pistons. On March 24, 2018, Zeke was playing in the final minutes of his team’s last preseason game when he collapsed on the court. His heart had stopped.

Zeke had suffered sudden cardiac arrest. He was transported to the hospital, where he later died.

Attorneys representing the Estate of Zeke Upshaw and his mother, Jewel Upshaw filed a lawsuit against Defendants NBA, the Detroit Pistons, and others.

The lawsuit alleged:

  1. Defendants knew basketball players have a higher risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD)
  2. Defendants knew that if players suffer a cardiac event, they must have immediate and appropriate medical treatment to survive
  3. Defendants neglected to administer life-saving measures such as CPR, or applying an automatic external defibrillator (AED) during the critical window of time after Zeke collapsed, even though an AED was available
  4. Defendants caused Zeke’s wrongful death by the negligent hiring and training of staff and employees, and by the unnecessary, unreasonable, and grossly negligent delays in providing and administering medical care and treatment.

The case was settled before trial for an undisclosed amount.

Assuming the Risk and Liability Releases

A signed waiver or release of liability may not prevent you from filing a personal injury lawsuit for sports injuries.

Most types of injuries in sports are purely accidental, and no one is to blame. When we voluntarily engage in a sport, we know or should know that there always exists the possibility of injury. It goes with the territory. Not surprisingly, the highest rates of injuries occur in popular contact sports.

Assumption of the Risk

Assumption of risk is a legal term that means we knew there was a chance we could get hurt and decided to play the sport anyway. When we step onto the playing field, whether it’s a football game in a neighbor’s backyard or shooting hoops at the local basketball court, we accept the risk inherent in the sport.

We know there’s a risk that when running to catch a football we may twist our knee or accidentally run into another player. These are injuries common to football players at all levels. As a result, it’s nobody’s fault when we get a knee injury or sprained ankle. We knew it could happen, and it did.

Under these circumstances, we would not have grounds for a liability insurance claim or a sports injury lawsuit.

Similar issues arise with sport shooting gun accidents and boating accidents.

Written Releases of Liability May Not Be Enforceable

In some cases, before getting permission to engage in a sport, the owner of a sports field may require participants, or in the case of minors, their parents, to sign a release form indemnifying the owner from liability for injuries. Sports injury release forms are controversial and prone to years of litigation.

If you signed a release of liability and were injured by the negligent or willful conduct of the property owner, contact a personal injury attorney to find out if the release is valid.

If the injuries were truly accidental, and not negligent or willful, the release might be valid and enforceable. However, if the property owner’s conduct caused the injuries, the release may not stop you from pursuing compensation.

Case Example: Child Injured at Baseball Camp

Brandon Quinn was 12 years old and attending the Mississippi State Baseball Camp. Brandon and some other campers were watching a demonstration by Coach Keith Kosh on hitting a baseball off a tee.

According to Brandon, without warning, Coach Kosh swung the baseball bat, hitting him in the mouth. The blow knocked out one of Brandon’s permanent teeth and permanently damaged four other teeth.

The Quinns’ attorney filed suit against the school, the coach, and others, seeking compensation for Brandon’s injury, alleging negligence for failing to provide baseball instructions to Brandon in a safe manner.

The university argued, among other things, that the Quinns has signed a release “…that acknowledged the risks associated with participating in the camp and agreed to accept those risks.”

The Quinns’ argued the release was not valid, because the document did not release harmful actions by the instructor. The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with the Quinns, rejecting the release signed by Brandon’s parents as invalid.

The court ruled that the parents could not have anticipated the instructor’s negligence when they signed the release, so they did not knowingly sign away their son’s rights to seek compensation.

As you can see, liability waivers are not always valid. If you signed a release and you or a loved one were subsequently injured, look closely at the circumstances of the injury to decide whether the injury’s cause was accidental or negligent.

Children Injured in School Sports

Everyone agrees on the importance of physical fitness to overall good health. Youth sports are an excellent way for kids to be physically active, make friends, and develop collaborative skills. Unfortunately, accidents happen all too frequently.

Government studies reveal that as many as 14 percent of life-threatening injuries are connected to sports, with the highest proportion seen for children 18 years old and younger.

School teachers, coaches, and other athletic personnel have a specific duty, called “in loco parentis” (in place of the parent) to protect children from undue harm.

That doesn’t mean the school is on the hook for every sports injury. The coach (or any other school employee) is required to make a reasonable effort to protect your child from foreseeable injury.

Reasonable efforts to protect children include:

  • Planning sports games and practices, and allocating appropriate space
  • Observing safety standards of play
  • Inspecting all areas for hazards
  • Selecting and inspecting appropriate sports equipment
  • Evaluating the playing fields and surrounding areas before each activity
  • Monitoring play and practice areas for safety and security

When coaches make a mistake or fail to do what any reasonable athletic director would do, they are negligent. The school is responsible for athletic injuries caused by the negligence of its staff.

6 Critical Steps to Take After a Sports Injury

You’ll need evidence to support an injury claim whether you’re injured in your neighbor’s back yard, at school, or at a sporting event at your local park or recreation center. What you do and say following an injury can impact the success of your claim.

Step 1: Report the Injury

As soon as you’re hurt, tell the coach or property owner. Don’t laugh it off or minimize your injury. Adrenaline, distress, and embarrassment can mask symptoms. You could have life-threatening injuries and not realize it.

Step 2: Seek Medical Treatment

Prompt medical treatment is critical to a successful injury claim. If someone calls an ambulance, let the paramedics evaluate your injuries. If you aren’t taken to the hospital, see your doctor or go to urgent care as soon as possible. Tell every medical provider who treats you exactly when, where, and how you were injured.

Refusing or delaying medical treatment is the worse thing you can do. The insurance company will jump at the chance to deny your claim, arguing that the injury didn’t happen when you say it did.

Step 3: Take Photographs and Videos

Take pictures and videos of the injury location and anything that contributed to your injuries, like lifted turf, or broken equipment.

If you were at a public event, there are likely photographs or videos taken by spectators before, during, and after your injury. Ask for digital copies from anyone you know. Talk with your attorney about locating images, posts, and videos from social media that will help support your claim.

Likewise, many community events are covered by local television stations. Contact the station manager to ask for copies of their footage.

Step 5: Request Witness Statements

Ask other players and spectators for their written statements. Independent witnesses, meaning people who don’t have a personal or financial interest in your claim, are especially helpful, as insurance companies and juries give more weight to their testimony.

Step 6: Document Your Damages

Request copies of all your medical treatment records and bills. Gather records for emergency care, dental care, and any specialists like orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, or mental health care providers.

Save copies of all receipts for out-of-pocket expenses, including transportation costs. You’ll also need a statement of your lost wages.

Filing a Sports Injury Claim for Compensation

When you’ve fully recovered from minor, soft-tissue injuries like bumps, bruises, or muscle strains, you can probably negotiate a fair settlement directly with the insurance company.

Private Locations

If you were injured at a private home, private sports facility, or a private school, you should ask the property owner for their insurance information.

Many homeowner’s insurance policies won’t require proof of negligence for med-pay claims under $1,000. You won’t be paid for pain and suffering but should have no problem getting reimbursed for medical care.

You would be out of luck if you were injured in your own backyard. Homeowner’s insurance policies won’t cover injuries to you or members of your household.

You might have a claim against the manufacturer if you were injured by defective sports equipment, like a defective workout machine or broken basketball backboard.

Government Claims

Public schools and community recreation centers are run by the state or local government. Beware of handling a government claim on your own.

The rules for injury claims against government entities are convoluted, and the deadlines are often very short. Any mistakes can extinguish your claim.

High-Dollar Claims

Claims for severe injuries like brain trauma, permanent knee or shoulder injuries, facial scarring, and other potentially lifetime injuries are complicated and difficult to win on your own.

Insurance companies are notorious for offering lower settlements to claimants who are not represented by an attorney. The adjuster knows that when they make their “final offer,” you probably won’t have the energy or the legal skills to fight for more money.

Only an experienced attorney can get the compensatory damages you deserve for serious injury claims, or pursue complex litigation.

You’ll need a good personal injury lawyer for cases involving:

  • Serious sports injuries
  • Multiple liable parties
  • Defective products
  • Wrongful death

Don’t risk your family’s economic future by trying to handle a high-dollar injury case on your own. A skilled attorney can boost your compensation from all sources and protect your future interests.

Most reputable law firms offer free consultations. There’s no obligation and no charge to find out what an experienced personal injury attorney can do for you.

Sports Injury Claim Questions

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>