Soccer league, coach not liable for unexpected violent act of player

A recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision serves as a reminder that people who assume a supervisory role with a sports league owe a duty of care to players but will not be held liable for the impulsive acts of a team member who had no history of aggressive or violent behaviour, Toronto civil litigator, Maija Pluto, tells Advocate Daily.

“The Court of Appeal confirms that the law is clear that supervising authorities are not legally responsible for ‘a sudden unexpected event in the midst of an acceptable, safe activity,’” says Pluto, an associate with Gaertner Baron Professional Corporation.

In the case before the court, the plaintiff and his team were playing in a soccer match with another team. During an altercation, a player from the opposing team punched the plaintiff in the face.

The player was criminally convicted for the assault. The plaintiff, who was 16 at the time, and his family brought claims under the Family Law Act and sued the player, his team, the provincial association under whose auspices the game was played, and several other associated individuals.

In 2017, a judge granted a summary judgment dismissing the action against all of the defendants except the player who was criminally convicted.

The appellants argued that the respondents were negligent in their handling of the game and breached several standards of care for on-field supervision and player conduct, that they were liable under the Occupiers Liability Act (OLA) for failing to ensure that the playing field was safe, and the motion judge erred in finding that these arguments did not raise genuine issues requiring a trial.

The motion judge rejected this claim and found that there was no evidence that the player acted in a physically aggressive or violent manner during a soccer game prior to the 2010 incident. She noted he had twice been disciplined before the game in question, but only for “being verbally inappropriate with referees.”

At appeal, the panel agreed with the motion judge. The panel also found there was no evidence that there were “any site safety issues or that the playing field was not safe,” and no evidence that the respondents were in breach of any obligation owed under the OLA.

Pluto says this decision confirms that sports teams and associated supervising individuals will generally not be held liable for impulsive acts of a player who has no history of aggressive or violent behaviour.

“However, it serves as a reminder for coaches and organizers who assume a supervisory position that failing to adequately fulfil this role may attract potential tort liability,” she says. “As well, there are risks associated with allowing a player who is known to engage in physical altercations to participate in a sports activity.”

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