The Court of Appeal (COA) recently granted a consent order allowing the withdrawal of a case on sports spectator liability, even though a full appeal hearing had taken place. The plaintiff’s lawyers applied to withdraw the appeal just days before the COA was due to deliver its judgment.
Campbell v County Sligo Golf Club and Others
Whilst a spectator at the West of Ireland Golf Championship in 2016, the plaintiff was struck by a stray golf ball of a leading amateur golfer, Kevin Le Blanc. The plaintiff alleged Le Blanc hit an errant shot and should have vocally alerted nearby players and spectators by shouting “fore” to signal the impending ball. He instituted personal injuries proceedings against the Golf Club, as the organiser of the event; the Golfing Union of Ireland (as it was then), responsible for amateur golf administration; and Le Blanc.
In 2021, the High Court (Court) dismissed the plaintiff’s claim. It delivered a significant decision for sports clubs, tournament organisers and event spectators. The Court found that the plaintiff was not paying attention and was talking to friends. It found that the plaintiff was a recreational user “responsible to a huge extent, as matters played out, for his own safety”. The Court held that the duty of care owed to spectators is to not act in “wanton disregard” for their safety. This decision on the duty of care was significant as it imposed a lesser standard than the duty to act with reasonable care.
The Court held that the standard of care owed to spectators is not absolute. It is based on what is reasonably expected from event organisers considering the circumstances, the sport in question, and the level of risk involved. Different sports may entail varying levels of inherent risk, and there is an obligation on organisers to assess and mitigate such risks accordingly.
The plaintiff appealed the decision to the COA. After a full hearing of the appeal, judgment was reserved. The COA was scheduled to deliver judgment in May 2023. However, following a settlement with the defendants, the plaintiff’s solicitors sought to withdraw the appeal just days before judgment was due. The plaintiff applied to the COA to refrain from delivering judgment and to instead strike out the proceedings with no order for costs.
Mr Justice Collins noted that a court may, in certain circumstances, give judgment despite being requested not to do so. Collins J referred to McDonagh v Sunday Newspapers, noting that as a matter of principle, a court is entitled to proceed to judgment, even if the appeal has been settled and the parties do not want judgment delivered. He also referenced the UK case, Jabbar v Aviva Insurance UK Ltd, where the court rejected the submission that “exceptional circumstances” (such as allegations of dishonesty and malice) had to be established before a court could give judgment after a settlement.
Collins J also relied on the English case Barclays Bank PLC v Nylon Capital LLP which held that although not determinative, the fact that all the parties were in agreement was particularly significant. The “strong public interest” in encouraging the consensual resolution of litigation, however belatedly, was a key consideration. Although the settlement was not conditional upon judgment not being handed down, Collins J commented that it might undermine its status and value and deter other litigants from pursuing settlement, should judgment be delivered.
The COA found that the principal focus of its judgment was fact-specific, rather than involving issues of law of any great novelty or significance. In those circumstances, and having regard to the parties agreed position, the potential stress of litigation on private parties, and the potential impact of a published judgment, the COA was satisfied not to deliver judgment. The COA held that these factors outweighed the public interest in publishing the judgment.
Where the COA did not deliver judgment, the Court’s decision remains an important precedent for golf and other participation sports (including sport clubs and event organisers) by confirming that recreational users remain responsible to a large extent for their own safety.
For a detailed review of the High Court’s judgment, see our previous article here
Contributed by Deborah Obarisiagbon & Conal McCluskey