UK: Beware The Hidden Risk: Event Organiser And Venue Owner Liability

Last Updated: 5 January 2012
Article by Ben Rees

Recent tragic events in motorsport, with the deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli in IndyCar and MotoGP respectively, have brought into focus the role event organisers and venue owners play in ensuring the safety of those participating in sporting events and where liability rests when accidents do occur.

Liability - venue owners

The duty of care owed by an occupier to his visitors requires that such care is displayed to ensure that the visitor will be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purposes for which he or she is there.

In the sporting context, the duty of an 'occupier' or venue owner was recently examined by the Court in Sutton v Syston Rugby Football Club Limited. Whilst playing a game of touch rugby, Jack Sutton dived for the try line, suffering a gash to his right knee. The judge found that his injury was caused by a broken cricket marker, which was buried in the grass and had been left behind by members of the cricket club.

The club accepted that they owed a duty of care to those playing on their pitches, which required them to carry out a pitch inspection prior to inviting teams to play on it. Although on this occasion a pitch inspection had not been carried out, the club argued that a general inspection, carried out in line with the risk assessment criteria set by the Rugby Football Union, would not have discovered the broken cricket marker. This argument failed at first instance but the club was successful on appeal.

In deciding the case, the Court of Appeal was clearly mindful of the wider implications to the sport: "I hope that [Mr Sutton] can appreciate that this court has to look at the case from a wider perspective than just his own injury and must not be too astute to impose duties of care which would make rugby playing as a whole more subject to interference from the courts than it should be."

No doubt, the fact that the Court was considering a gashed knee and not a broken neck (see Vowles below), made reaching this conclusion easier. However, the case serves as a reminder to sports clubs and venue owners of the duty they owe to those using their facilities. In determining whether this duty has been discharged, the courts will look to whether the venue owner has complied with the regulations or guidance issued by the governing body of the relevant sport.

Liability – rule enforcers and governing bodies

Liability for injury sustained in the sporting context, most notably with those sports perceived to be more dangerous or which pose a greater risk to the safety of participants, extends beyond the scope of occupiers' liability.

The case of Vowles v Evans & WRU established that rugby referees owe a duty of care to players. The case concerned an amateur Welsh rugby match in which the referee had failed to implement a law that provided for uncontested scrums in the event that a team were unable to provide enough players with sufficient scrummage experience. In the last minute of the game, and with an inexperienced stand-in prop playing for one team, the scrum collapsed causing injury to Mr Vowles who was left confined to a wheelchair as a result. It was considered fair, just and reasonable that players should be entitled to rely on a referee exercising reasonable care and skill when applying the rules of a sport. The Court dismissed fears that the outcome of the case would lead to a drop in referee participation, forming the view that the risk of facing a claim in negligence was a remote one, and was outweighed by the pleasure taken from participation in sport.

In boxing, the Court has gone further, holding that the sport's regulator owes a duty to those engaged in their sport to ensure that rules and regulations are effective in safeguarding participants' wellbeing (Watson v British Boxing Board of Control ("BBBC"). Following the 12th round stoppage in his middleweight fight with Chris Eubank in November 1991, Michael Watson lost consciousness and suffered permanent brain injuries. A doctor with the required medical equipment did not arrive for some minutes. Watson argued that the BBBC owed him a duty to ensure that he received timely treatment from medical professionals who had with them the necessary equipment at ringside.

The Court agreed, finding the BBBC liable, not in respect of the suffering of the injury itself, but in failing to ensure that injuries sustained were properly treated. In effect, the 'new' duty of care which the BBBC was found to have breached was not the failure to provide those services directly, rather the failure to make regulations which imposed a duty on others to achieve that result.

There was concern that this principle would create excessive burdens on regulators, such as costly insurance policies to protect from the risk of such claims (costs which would most likely be passed on to the participants). However, the Court emphasised that boxing was unique in its inherent risks, as well as noting the distinctive features of the case. Regulators, especially in those sports where the risk of serious injury is greater, must be mindful of the need to have in place robust and effective regulations to protect participants following an injury.


The Court is plainly aware of the wider implications to sport of overburdening clubs and regulators with excessive duties of care. However, what is clear is that the Court will not hesitate to uphold such a duty where it is reasonable to do so and where the safety of participants is at greater risk.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Ben Rees
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