A recent High Court judgment demonstrated that the high threshold required to prove negligence or reasonable foreseeability in Ireland remains firmly intact in relation to participation in sporting activities.
The case arose as a result of severe back injuries sustained by the Plaintiff arising from a fall from a horse during a fox hunt in Ballygeehan, Co. Laois. The accident occurred on a jump over a tree obstacle when the Plaintiff’s horse became caught in some brambles, causing the horse to fall on top of the Plaintiff.
The Plaintiff’s claim was filed against both the hunting club and the landowner. The Plaintiff pleaded that the Defendants did not take reasonable care for her safety, failed to take any adequate precautions in terms of safety and caused or permitted a danger to exist.
The Defendants contended that any act or omission on the part of the Defendants was not sufficiently proximate to the alleged acts or omissions. In addition, they contended that the Field Master of the hunt had inspected the obstacle, instructed the field not to jump it and led them away from it. The Plaintiff then proceeded to attempt to jump the obstacle of her own volition.
The Plaintiff’s core argument centred on her claim that she should have been advised by the hunting club not to take the jump and that more effort should have been made to pass the information back through the group to ensure that the jump was signalled as hazardous.
Voluntary participation in sport and inherent risks
O’Hanlon J. referred to the fact that voluntary participation in sport brings with it an acceptance of the inherent risks involved. Express reference was made to the Australian Supreme Court case of Roote v Sheldon which held that although there is an inherent risk via participation “this does not eliminate all duty of care of one participant to the other”. It had to be determined, therefore, whether the Field Master had discharged his duty of care to a reasonable standard.
The Court held that the navigation of an unpredictable terrain expanding between 30 and 35 acres brought with it an inherent risk of falling that could not be denied. The Court noted that the warning of the Field Master, to turn away from the tree obstacle, was properly communicated, that it was obviously given to a considerable number of people and that only three of the hunt group of 40 to 50 riders, attempted to jump the particular obstacle.
With regard to the landowner, it was accepted that a general rule exists in fox hunting that the members waive all claims against landowners for injuries to themselves or their horses. The landowner’s only involvement in this case was his acceptance of a call from the Master of the Hunt and subsequent permission for the hunt to travel across his land and as such he was held to have no liability.
The Court ultimately held that the Field Master followed the rules and discharged a reasonable duty of care to the Plaintiff. The Court further held that the Plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk to her own detriment. The high bar required to prove negligence or reasonable foreseeability in a sports injury claim had not been reached and the Court dismissed the Plaintiff’s claim. In this case the rules and procedures of the sport were followed and other sporting bodies should take note that this will be crucial to a negligence action for such an injury.
Contributed by: Patrick Murphy