Australia: Sporting Grounds: Who Is Liable?: “Latrobe Council v. Williams” [2007] TASSC 77

Last Updated: 26 November 2007

Article by David Slatyer, Partner and Angela Ormiston, Lawyer, Brisbane

In the recent decision of Latrobe Council v. Williams, the full court of the Supreme Court of Tasmania considered the scope of the duty of care owed by a local council and two football clubs to an AFL player who suffered severe fractures to his lower leg injury during a football game, when his foot landed on the cover of an irrigation outlet that was set into the ground of the field.

In a trial relating to liability only, the full court unanimously dismissed the appeal of the Latrobe Council, confirming that it was liable for the plaintiff’s injuries, however upheld the appeals of the Latrobe and East Devonport Football Clubs to determine that neither football club breached its duty of care to the plaintiff.


At the time of the incident, the 36 year old plaintiff was playing football for the East Devonport Football Club against the Latrobe Football Club at its home field, the Latrobe Recreation Ground, in Tasmania. The plaintiff sustained an unusual "eversion" injury to his left leg (the ankle rolling in the opposite direction to what is common) when he jumped up with his hands raised to mark the football, and landed, at least partly, on the cover of an irrigation outlet. The irrigation outlet, which contained a tap for watering the ground in the cricket season, consisted of a 20 mm – 40 mm hole covered by a thick metal lid, a wooden block, and green carpet-like material commonly known as "Astroturf". Soil was packed around the edges of the cover to prevent it from moving, and the top of the cover was supposed to sit flush with the surrounding grass.

The Latrobe City Council was the owner of the Recreation Ground, and leased the buildings at the ground to the Latrobe Football Club. Pursuant to the lease, the Council was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the sporting field; however the Latrobe Football Club was required to inspect the ground and complete a facility inspection sheet at least 24 hours before a game. Both football clubs were also required to complete a Match Day Checklist prior to the commencement of play under rules imposed by the North Tasmanian Football League.  

The main issue for determination by the court was whether the cover of the irrigation outlet created an unreasonable risk of injury for football players using the field, and whether the council and/or football clubs failed to take reasonable steps to respond to the risk.

Decision At First Instance

At first instance, the trial judge held that the Council was 85% liable for the plaintiff’s injuries, and that the football clubs were jointly 15% liable (there was no differentiation between the liability of the two football clubs and both had the same insurer). The trial judge accepted evidence that the irrigation outlet was not flush with the surrounding soil, and that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by him landing awkwardly on an uneven surface. It was determined that the hard edge and height differentiation of the irrigation outlet posed an "obvious" risk of injury to footballers, and that the Council and football clubs were negligent by failing to adequately respond to the risk.

Appeal Decision

On appeal, the full court agreed that the Council breached its duty of care to the plaintiff by failing to adequately respond to the risk posed by the height difference between the irrigation outlet and the surrounding soil.  After considering the relevant evidence, the full court determined that the height differentiation, in excess of half a centimetre, created an unreasonable risk of injury to football players.

To determine what reasonable steps the Council should have taken to avoid the risk of injury posed by the irrigation outlets, the court considered methods utilised by other football clubs to cover irrigation pits during the football season. Whilst some other sporting fields in the area adopted the same practise as the Latrobe Recreation Ground, by covering the irrigation holes with a wooden block and Austroturf, other groundsmen gave evidence that they filled irrigation pits with compacted soil, and sewed actual grass or turf over the top. The trial judge accepted that the latter method was safer, and that the plaintiff’s injuries could have been avoided if this practise was adopted by the Council.

The full court agreed that the plaintiff would probably not have sustained his injuries had the Council filled the irrigation pits with properly compacted soil and covered the pits with grass. However, the hard edge height differentiation that caused the plaintiff’s injuries could also have been avoided by a proper construction of the irrigation pit and its cover. The precise method adopted used by the Latrobe Recreation Ground to cover the irrigation pits was not determinative of the Council’s negligence - what was important was that the Council failed to take reasonable steps, using whatever method it deemed appropriate, to respond to a real risk of injury caused by the difference in height between the irrigation outlet and the surrounding soil.

The full court overturned the trial judge’s finding that the Latrobe Football Club and the East Devonport Football Club were negligent by failing to takes steps to ensure that the sporting ground was safe for the purpose of playing football prior to the match. At trial, it was established that a representative of the Latrobe Football Club inspected the ground, including the condition of the irrigation covers, on the Wednesday before the match (in accordance with its obligations under the lease), and that another representative of the Club completed the Match Day Checklist on the morning of the incident. It appeared that no one from the East Devonport Football Club carried out an inspection of the field prior to the match.

The full court held that the standard of care imposed on the on the two football clubs by the trial judge was too onerous. The full court considered that a reasonable football club should not have been expected to find an unpaid volunteer to carry out an inspection of the sporting ground that included a thorough analysis of whether the five irrigation pits were flush with the surrounding soil and if there was any hard edge height differentiation.

The Match Day Checklist required inspection of many other aspects of the sporting field, and all that was required in relation to the irrigation pits was to check that the covers were in place. Whilst the Latrobe Football Club, as the home team, had a greater level of responsibility for the state of the ground than the visiting East Devonport Football Club, the degree of inspection required by the Clubs would not have revealed the hard edge height differentiation that caused the plaintiff’s injuries – this was the responsibility of the Council.


In our view the full court’s decision in Latrobe Council v. Williams restored a fair approach to the degree of care required concerning the condition of sporting grounds and a proper balance between the obligations of various parties responsible for, or using, the ground.

An uneven surface is seen as a risk to users of a sporting ground.  In this case the uneven surface (i.e. the irrigation pit) was not naturally occurring but created by the Council, and evidence from other sporting grounds showed that an irrigation pit could be kept flush with the ground surface.  Accordingly it was the Council, as owner and maintainer of the ground, which was found liable. 

The football clubs, who used the ground, were excused from liability on appeal because it was not reasonable to expect their volunteer members to conduct an inspection of the ground in such detail as to detect the half centimetre height difference and then fix it.

Councils, sporting clubs and their insurers should be mindful of the agreements for the inspection and upkeep of their grounds, and in particular, the risks posed by man made items which affect the condition of the ground.

For more information, please contact:


Jim Demack

t (07) 3231 1570


David Slatyer

t (07) 3231 1532



Wendy Blacker

t (02) 9931 4922


Rory O'Connor

t (02) 9931 4933


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