UK: Duty Of Care Owed On The Playing Field - A Further Incremental Step?

Last Updated: 13 March 2003

In this article we consider the recent Court of Appeal decision in the case of Vowles v Evans and others [2003] All ER 134 which considered whether the Claimant who was injured during an amateur rugby game could recover damages.

The facts

  • The accident occurred during an amateur Rugby Union game between Llanharan and Tondu.
  • Llanharan’s 2nd XV’s loose-head prop was injured and retired from the game.
  • The referee discussed with the captains of both teams whether anyone was suitably trained to take his place. He also raised the possibility of continuing the game by having non-contestable scrummages but this was rejected by the teams. Christopher Jones, Llanharan’s pack leader, who had never been trained as a front row forward but who had occasionally played in the front row, agreed to give the position "a go".
  • During the course of the final scrummage of the game, the Claimant sustained a dislocation of the neck resulting in permanent incomplete tetraplegia.

The decision

The Court of Appeal confirmed the decision of Mr Justice Morland at first instance that the referee was negligent.

  • The Court of Appeal considered whether the referee owed a duty of care by applying the test set down by the House of Lords in Caparo Plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605. It was conceded that the relationship between the referee and the Claimant was sufficiently proximate and that it was reasonably foreseeable that if the referee failed to exercise reasonable care injury might result. The primary question for determination by the Court of Appeal was whether it was "fair, just and reasonable" to impose a duty of care.
  • The Court of Appeal acknowledged that the availability of insurance could influence the issue as to whether it was fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty. This issue was not considered further because there was no evidence before the Court of Appeal that public liability insurers were considering excluding injury for sporting injuries.
  • Rugby is an inherently dangerous sport where some of the rules are specifically designed to minimise inherent dangers and where players are dependent for their safety upon the enforcement of the rules.
  • A referee undertakes to enforce those rules and, as such, the Court of Appeal held it was fair, just and reasonable that the players should be entitled to rely upon the referee to exercise reasonable care. The Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips, stated "Rarely if ever does the law absolve from an obligation of care a person whose acts or omissions are manifestly capable of causing physical harm to others in a structured relationship into which they have entered".
  • The standard of the duty of care owed by the referee is the usual standard of the ordinary competent referee. Lord Phillips recognised there was "scope for argument as to the extent to which the degree of skill to be expected of a referee depends upon the grade of the referee or of the match that he had agreed to referee" although, on the facts of this particular case, this issue was not discussed further.
  • On the particular facts it was found that a referee had breached the duty of care because he had failed to consider properly whether Christopher Jones had suitable training/experience to play in the front row.
  • The Court of Appeal acknowledged that causation was a difficult issue in this type of case. The Court found that Mr Justice Morland’s finding at first instance that scrummages had started to go wrong as soon as Christopher Jones had taken up position in the front row was "critical". That evidence was sufficient for a finding to be made that it was Christopher Jones’ inexperience which made a material contribution to the Claimant’s injury.


This is an important decision because it confirms that a duty of care is owed by an amateur rugby referee. In the previous decision of Smolden v Whitworth [2002] PTQR 137 the existence of a duty of care was conceded although the scope of the duty owed was contested.

The Court of Appeal in the present case specifically rejected the submission that because rugby is an inherently physical game a duty of care should not be imposed. This case is a good example of an incremental extension to the circumstances in which a duty of care is owed and, whilst it can be argued that the existence of the duty should be specifically confined to the game of rugby, we anticipate that in future cases claimants will seek to extend this precedent to other sports.

Article by Howard Watson

© Herbert Smith March 2003

The content of this article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. Specific advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

For more information on this or other Herbert Smith publications, please email us..

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