The “Contact Sports” Exception For Physical Injuries Suffered While Playing A Sport

Iowa law recognizes that participants in certain types of activities or circumstances owe less of a duty of care to other participants.  In other words, in certain situations it’s harder to sue someone than it’d normally be.  Those instances normally involve situations in which someone has voluntarily exposed themselves to a greater risk of harm and thus can’t be heard to complain when harm occurs.

One such activity that has been identified as an exception is contact sports.  Participants in contact sports are not governed by the general rules of negligence.  Rather, participants in contact sports are merely required to refrain from reckless or intentional conduct.  This standard recognizes that known risks associated with a contact sport are assumed by participants in the sport and that it is contrary to the competitiveness of contact sports to impose a duty on participants to protect co-participants from such known and accepted risks through the exercise. So participants in contact sports are not completely free from legal responsibility for their conduct that creates a risk of injury, but they do enjoy a substantially lower duty of care in protecting other participants.  This applies not only to the conduct that occurs within the rules and objectives of the sport, but also by conduct from participants who fail to properly execute an activity contemplated by the sport or who violate the sport’s rules.

So what is a contact sport?  This analysis does not focus on whether the participants were engaged in a formally organized or coached sport, but instead centers on whether the activity inherently involves the risk of injurious contact to participants.  Not all sports inherently involve contact capable of injury.  The purpose of deciding whether an activity is a contact sport is to determine if the risk of harm of injurious contact was known and understood as a part of the sport. If the risk of injury is a part of the sport, then the participants must only refrain from reckless or intentional conduct causing injury.

Once an activity has been identified as a “contact sport,” the injured party can only recover if the higher standard of recklessness is proved.  In order to prove recklessness, a plaintiff must show that the participant has intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known risk or a risk so obvious that the participant must be taken to have been aware of it and so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow.  An act performed by a participant in a sport that produces a radically different result from the normal and expected result of the act, even when performed negligently, gives rise to an inference that the result was purposeful.


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