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Articles and Publications

July 2018

World Cup of Violence: Are Soccer Clubs and Leagues Liable for "On Field" Fisticuffs?

David Elmaleh
David Elmaleh
Partner

Ryan Smith
Ryan Smith,
Law Student

By David Elmaleh and Ryan Smith

Introduction

To what extent can sports clubs, facilities and leagues be held responsible for the violent outbursts of a player during a game?

The Ontario Court of Appeal in Da Silva v. Gomes, 2018 ONCA 610 recently upheld the principle that supervising authorities are generally not legally responsible for "a sudden unexpected event in the midst of an acceptable, safe activity."

The Facts

In the midst of a fiercely competitive soccer game, the plaintiff Michael Da Silva was in an altercation with one of the defendant Gomes' teammates, when Mr. Gomes ran over and punched Mr. Da Silva in the face, injuring him.

Mr. Da Silva sued Mr. Gomes, the Hamilton Sparta Sports Club, which hosted the game, the Ontario Soccer Association Incorporated, under whose auspices the game was played, and several other associated individuals.

The motion judge granted summary judgment dismissing the action against all the defendants other than Gomes. Mr. Da Silva appealed.

The Issues and Analysis

The Ontario Court of Appeal held that the defendants owed a duty of care to the players to properly supervise the game. However, the league and team were not negligent in their supervision of the game, as they had maintained the appropriate standard of care for training coaches and protecting against player misconduct. The Court noted that the coach was properly qualified, and Mr. Gomes' prior two incidents of making inappropriate comments to referees were not the type of behaviour that should have given the coach reason to conclude that there was a risk of a future violent outburst. Moreover, Mr. Gomes knew he was not supposed to punch another player but acted impulsively, so no code of conduct would have prevented his actions.

Mr. Gomes knew he was not supposed to punch another player but acted impulsively...

Since there was no evidence of negligence, and no evidence that the playing field was unsafe for the purposes of occupier's liability, summary judgment was appropriate given the key facts were not in dispute.

Conclusion

The release of this decision is timely, as the World Cup draws to a close and soccer fans worldwide are focused on the beauty of arguably the most popular sport on the planet.

The Court of Appeal in Da Silva v Gomes interestingly referred to classic cases of typical schoolyard altercations, as opposed to organized sporting events, in affirming the motion judge's decision that only the conduct of the aggressor himself potentially attracted liability.

The case is an important reiteration from Ontario's highest court that sports facilities, leagues, coaches, clubs and teams must have in place appropriately trained staff and codes of conduct to protect participants in a sport from unreasonable violence. Insurers also ought to take note of the circumstances upon which liability can be avoided, or imposed when the fierce competition and tension turns violent.

This decision offers comfort to insurers, athletic facilities and sports leagues when players make rash emotional decisions in the heat of competition.

As the saying goes, the game must go on...


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