Sports Injury Claims: How to Determine Liability and Compensation

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 what if your injury was caused by someone else?

When you’re injured because of another party’s negligence, you may be entitled to compensation for your expenses and suffering.

Most Common Types of Sports Injuries

Just about any body part or internal organ can be injured playing sports, the most common types of injuries are:

  • Knee injuries are very common in sports, including muscle and tendon sprain and tears, joint damage, and kneecap damage.
  • Shoulder injuries include strains, sprains, dislocations, and rotator cuff injuries.
  • Ankle injuries can be mild or severe, ranging from mild sprains to fractures. Ankles are easily “rolled” while running and jumping or making sharp changes in direction.
  • Elbow injuries often called “tennis elbow” results from the breakdown of tendons from repetitive use during sports like tennis, golf, and baseball.
  • Pulled hamstring muscles refer to the muscles in the back of the thigh that help bend the knee, that become “pulled” or overworked during sports like football, basketball, and soccer.
  • Concussions are generally caused by sudden impact to the head and are one of the most common injuries in football. Concussions are a level of traumatic brain injury.
  • Fractures can range from stress fractures from repetitive motion or broken bones from sudden impact.

Not surprisingly, the highest rates of injuries occur in sports involving player contact and collisions.

Sports with the highest injury rates include:

  • Basketball causes the most injuries in all age groups, particularly knee injuries.
  • Baseball and softball most commonly cause soft-tissue injuries to muscles and tendons, including rotator cuff shoulder injuries and elbow strains.
  • Football injuries often include serious head and neck injuries, broken bones, and concussions.
  • Hockey players often suffer serious shoulder injuries, including dislocation, broken collarbones, concussions, and muscle strains.
  • Soccer injuries typically include knee and ankle sprains, knee injuries, broken foot bones, broken collarbone, wrist fractures, and concussions.
  • Cheerleading is a leading cause of sports injuries in young women, from difficult cheer maneuvers and gymnastics.

Sports Injury Risk and Releases

Most sports injuries are purely accidental, and no one is to blame. When we voluntarily engage in a sport, we know or should know, there always exists the possibility of injury. It goes with the territory.

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 our neighbor’s backyard or the local basketball court, we accept the risk inherent in the sport.

We know, for instance, when running to catch a football we may twist our knee or accidentally run into another player. These are injuries common to the competitive nature of the sport. As a result, when we do twist a knee or sprain an ankle, the injury isn’t anyone’s fault. We knew it could happen, and it did.

Under these circumstances, we would not have grounds for a liability (meaning fault) insurance claim or lawsuit.

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 and you, or your child, 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 be able to stop you from pursuing compensation.

Case Summary: 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, releases of liability are not always valid. If you signed one and you or a loved one was 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. 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. ²

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 include:

  • Plan sports games and practices and allocate appropriate space
  • Observe safety standards of play
  • Inspect all areas for hazards
  • Select and inspect appropriate sports equipment
  • Evaluate the playing fields and surrounding areas before each activity
  • Monitor 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 injuries caused by the negligence of its staff.

Finding Fault for Sport 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 usually only occur within the normal scope of the sport in question.

Gym owners, personal trainers, coaches, and other players can be held financially responsible for sports-related 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 sport equipment
  • The injury was caused by playing in a court or on a 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

It helps to understand some terms used by insurance companies and lawyers:

“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 for such negligence as:

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, pads, give way, the results 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 life-changing 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. Product liability lawsuits can end with settlements or verdicts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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. However, 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.

When your child is injured by the deliberate acts of another child, you may be able to pursue compensation through Parental Liability for Injuries Caused by Children.

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 heat stroke.

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 an injury or medical emergency can be sued for negligence.

Case Summary:  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 have filed a lawsuit against Defendants NBA, the Detroit Pistons, and others.

The lawsuit alleges:

  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 Upshaw’s wrongful death by the negligent hiring and training of staff and employees, by the unnecessary, unreasonable, and grossly negligent delays in providing and administering medical care and treatment to Zeke Upshaw…”

The case, originally filed in New York, is Upshaw v. NBA et al., No. 2:18-cv-13301-TGB-SDD, pending in the Eastern District of Michigan before Judge Terrence G. Berg.

Evidence of Sports Injury Liability

You’ll need evidence to support an injury claim whether you’re injured in your neighbor’s back yard, at school, or a sporting event organized by your local park and recreation department.

Medical Treatment: Prompt medical treatment is critical to a successful injury claim. As soon as you’re hurt, tell the coach or property owner. Don’t laugh it off or minimize your injury. Distress and embarrassment can mask symptoms. You could have life-threatening injuries and not realize it.

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.

Photographs and Videos: Take as many pictures and videos as you safely can 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 and videos taken by spectators of the 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 arrange for copies of their footage.

Witness Statements: Ask other players and spectators for their written statements.  Independent witnesses, meaning people who are 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.

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.

Attorneys Boost Sports Injury Compensation

When you’ve fully recovered from minor, soft-tissue injuries like bumps, bruises, or minor sprains, 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 an exploding volleyball or shattered 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 very short. Any mistakes can extinguish your claim.

High-dollar Claims: Claims for “hard” injuries like brain trauma, severe knee or shoulder injuries, and potentially permanent injury claims are complicated and difficult to win on your own.

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

Only an attorney can get the compensation you deserve for hard injury claims, or complex litigation cases involving:

  • Child injury claims
  • Claims with multiple parties to blame
  • Product liability claims
  • Wrongful death cases

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

There’s no obligation, and no charge to find out what an experienced personal injury attorney can do for you.

Sports Injury Claim Questions & Answers

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 >>