An Australian Supreme Court decision could indicate a dramatic shift in sports injury law. Bruce Ralston explains the key facts of the case

Two professional rugby league players, as well as their club, Melbourne Storm, have been found liable for damages for a tackle that ended another player's career.

The Australian Supreme Court decision will be seen as yet another intrusion of the compensation culture into sport.

Some have even suggested the decision represents a seismic shift in sports injury law. But is it really a cause for concern?

There must be some caution as an appeal has been intimated. But it must be borne in mind that one of the defendants told the court that there was an intention on his part to hurt the player in the tackle, even if only slightly.

Both players had also admitted using a "dangerous throw when effecting a tackle".

A 'throw' is defined as where it is likely that the player being tackled will hit the ground either head or neck first.

The judge heard evidence from a former player and coach that this was "unreasonably dangerous play"and he saw video evidence. The judge felt that the proper interpretation of the players' admission was an acknowledgement by them that they had lifted the plaintiff.

It was not a case of "accidental momentum of a tackle leading to the plaintiff being in the upside-down position that he was". This was not a normal incident in this extremely tough game.

The judge highlighted three key factors:

  • The inherent danger of a player being upside down, particularly when lifted to that position
  • The rules recognised the danger and prohibited the manoeuvre
  • It was not necessary to prevent the forward movement of an opponent.
  • The Australian court stated that there would be "no liability for errors of judgment, oversights or lapses of which any participant might be guilty in the context of a fast-moving context. Something more serious is required".

    The more serious aspect was the fact that the judge found an intention to injure.

    While significant, this decision does not represent an Antipodean extension of the UK's duty of care.

    Australian decisions do have some influence over UK courts. Although decisions from Australian courts are not binding on UK courts, they are frequently cited in cases.

    The message to take from this judgment for players and coaches is play hard, but play fair, then you will not put your insurer in the position of having to defend a personal injury claim.

    ' Bruce Ralston is head of the sports liability unit at national law firm Beachcroft Wansbroughs

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