The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently upheld a Superior Court ruling that a high school hockey player, who caused injury from a deliberate, “tremendous” body check, still did not act recklessly and therefore was not liable for the injuries he caused.
The body check during an organized high school game, in which checking was permitted, was a calculated, extremely hard body check from behind. During the collision between players, the plaintiff’s wrist was severely cut by the checking player’s skate, an unintentional consequence of the intentional hit.
The Court noted that participants in an athletic event owe a duty to other participants to refrain from reckless misconduct; negligence is not enough to impose liability. For purposes of contact sports such as ice hockey, reckless conduct is defined as “extreme misconduct outside the range of the ordinary activity inherent in the sport.” The Court held that where the record was devoid of evidence from which a jury could rationally conclude that the player’s conduct constituted extreme misconduct outside the range of the ordinary activity inherent in the sport, there was no legal liability under the recklessness standard. The Court found that even though the conduct constituted a penalty under the rules of the sport, the action in checking another player from behind to strip him of the puck was conduct which was inherent in the sport. The Appeals Court concluded that summary judgment for the defendant was appropriate.
The case opinion included a strong dissenting opinion. The dissent found that the evidence and reasonable inferences from it clearly supported a finding that the plaintiff’s injury was the result of reckless disregard of safety – defendant’s hitting plaintiff from behind at full speed in what was described as a “tremendous, ferocious, full-speed, illegal, blind hit.” The dissent stated that such conduct at least presented a fact question for the jury as to whether the conduct was reckless.
The case is Borella v. Renfro, Massachusetts Appeals Court, decided on December 2, 2019.