Who can be held liable when someone is injured in the field or on the court?
Sports injuries are injuries that occur while participating in a sport.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population regularly participates in at least one sport.
In California, sports are a way of life. Whether it’s skiing the Sierra Nevada mountain range, surfing the Pacific Ocean, or playing basketball on the courts of Venice Beach, it’s hard to find a Californian who isn’t actively engaged in one sport or another.
Unfortunately, sports are not without risks.
In this article, we’ll take a look at California sports injuries and the legal remedies that may be available if you or someone you love is injured while playing a sport.
How many people participate in sports in California?
There’s no question that Californians enjoy sports. California has 19 professional sports franchises (more than any other state in the country) and some of the most successful collegiate sports teams in the nation.
It’s not uncommon to find California’s most famous residents regularly attending games played by the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Rams, and Los Angeles Galaxy.
But how many people actually participate in sports in California?
Tracking the number of people who participate in sports can be tricky. After all, there’s no one showing up in private backyards, sandlots, and community basketball courts with a survey.
Nevertheless, looking at the participation levels in high school can provide some insight into how popular sports are in a particular state. California law requires all public, primary, secondary, and charter schools offering competitive sports to report information about male and female participation at the end of each school year.
Athletic participation among high schoolers has increased in California for 8 consecutive years and reached an all-time high in 2020.
According to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), 815,313 student-athletes competed in high school athletic programs in California in 2020.
|Participation in high school sports in California (2020)
|Track and field
|Track and field
|Swimming and diving
|Swimming and diving
|Source: California Interscholastic Foundation
Common sports injuries and statistics
The type of injury an athlete is likely to suffer depends in large part on their chosen sport.
For example, shoulder injuries are common among baseball players who routinely throw balls and swing heavy bats. On the other hand, head injuries are more common among football players who are routinely hit and tackled at full speed.
Here are some of the most common sports injuries:
- Sprains and strains
- Knee injuries
- Swollen muscles
- Achilles tendon injuries
- Rotator cuff injuries
Although not as common, severe sports injuries include:
Stanford physicians collaborated with the university’s athletic department to track nearly 1,700 student-athletes over a 3-year period.
The study found that there were 3,126 injuries (1,473 for women and 1,653 for men) among the participants. The injuries, which caused the athletes to miss an average of 31 days of competition each, included musculoskeletal injuries, concussions, eating disorders, and infections illnesses. Head injuries accounted for 9% of all injuries.
You may think it’s mostly older adults who get injured playing sports, but there are more than 3.5 million injuries among athletes under the age of 14 across the U.S. every year. In fact, sports and recreational activities cause 21% of all traumatic brain injuries among American children, according to Stanford Children's Health Hospital.
Who’s liable for a sports injury?
Sports are physical and there’s always a chance you’re going to get hurt. If you jam your finger while diving for a football or sprain your ankle while running to first base, you’re probably not going to be able to recover damages for your injury.
However, if your injury occurs as a result of actions beyond the scope ordinarily contemplated for the activity, several parties may be liable depending on the circumstances.
Potentially liable parties for a sports injury include:
- Schools and other organizations
- Other players
- Medical professionals
The most common cause of action in sports injury cases is negligence. To prove that someone negligently caused your sports injury, you need to establish the following elements:
- The defendant owed you a duty of care. In most situations, the defendant owes you a duty to exercise “reasonable care.” In certain situations, the defendant might owe you a more specific duty of care.
- The defendant breached the applicable duty of care. The defendant might breach the applicable duty of care by, for example, encouraging you to re-enter a football game after you showed obvious signs of suffering a concussion.
- The plaintiff was injured as a direct result of the breach. The defendant’s breach must be the cause of your injury.
Other legal causes of action that might be appropriate in a sports injury case include:
- Product liability. A product liability claim might be appropriate if a product (such as a running shoe or football helmet) was defective or lacked proper warnings.
- Medical malpractice. A medical malpractice claim might be appropriate if a doctor failed to properly diagnose a condition or gave improper advice.
- Wrongful death. A wrongful death claim might be appropriate if the athlete suffered a fatal injury. Wrongful death claims can be filed by certain family members of the deceased and are intended to compensate family members for the loss of a loved one.
Three former UCLA Bruin football players filed a negligence lawsuit against former UCLA Bruins coaches Jim Mora, Adrian Klemm, and trainer Anthony Venute.
The lawsuit alleged that the player suffered severe injuries that worsened when the coaches and trainers discouraged the players from seeking medical attention and compelled them to return to play before receiving proper treatment.
“Each of these young men suffered serious, but significantly different injuries, while they were teammates at UCLA,” said the attorney for the players. “While the lawsuit involves many of the same facts, each case is distinct in its own way. But what they all have in common is the pattern of brutality and intentional disregard for player health and safety by coach Mora and his staff at UCLA.”
The three players sought $15 million each for the mishandling of their injuries. The lawsuit was ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.
Common defenses to sports accident lawsuits
There are 3 defenses commonly raised in sports injury cases:
- Assumption of the risk. The “assumption of the risk defense” essentially says that a plaintiff who voluntarily participates in a sports activity is owed no duty of care with respect to the obvious risks associated with the activity.
Instead, liability only attaches if the defendant intentionally injures or engages in reckless misconduct beyond the scope ordinarily contemplated for the activity.
For example, if a football player tackles you during a play and you break your arm, the football player won’t be held liable for your injury. However, if the football player takes his helmet off after the play is blown dead and strikes you with it, he’ll likely be held liable for any injuries you sustain.
- Waiver of liability. Before participating in a sport, you may be asked to sign a waiver of liability. A waiver is simply an agreement wherein you release certain parties (usually the organizing association or school) from any liability related to injuries suffered. In California, waivers typically protect defendants from negligence but not gross negligence.
- Statute of limitations. A statute of limitations specifies how long you have to bring a lawsuit against someone. If you fail to file a lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations, you’ll be prohibited from recovering any damages. In California, the statute of limitations for most sports injury cases is 2 years.
Nick Brown was a sophomore at Union Mine High School in El Dorado County when he suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing on the junior varsity football team.
Nick filed a personal injury lawsuit against El Dorado Union High School District, alleging that the District failed to recognize Nick’s initial concussion symptoms.
The District argued that Nick and his father had signed a waiver of liability and, therefore, the District could not be held liable. The court noted that waivers are valid and enforceable in California, but added the caveat that waivers can’t protect defendants who are found grossly negligent.
Unfortunately for Nick and his family, the court determined that the District was not grossly negligent.
Damages available in a California sports accident lawsuit
In sports injury cases, you’re entitled to compensation from the person or entity legally responsible for your injuries. In California, you can recover the following damages:
- Past and future medical expenses
- Future lost wages (if the injury limits the athlete’s ability to work in the future)
- Property damages
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
How to find the right California sports injury attorney
An experienced California sports injury attorney can help you negotiate with insurance companies and file a personal injury lawsuit if necessary.
Prepare for an initial consultation with an attorney using our free worksheet.
Meet California personal injury attorney Brett Sachs.
Brett’s law firm, MVP Accident Attorneys, is the official law firm of the LA Galaxy, a Major League Soccer club based in Los Angeles.