Sports Organizers Not Protected by the Contact Sports Exception for Injuries Caused by Improper Field Set-Up

In Illinois, people are normally responsible for injuries to others caused by their negligence. One exception to this is the contact sports rule which protects participants in contact sports unless the injury results from intentional or willful and wanton conduct.

The Illinois Appellate Court was asked to decide whether the organizers of a sporting event were also protected by the exception when the plaintiff claimed that his injury was caused by the organizer’s alleged improper set up of the field.

DeCamp Junction, Inc. set up an informal amateur softball league every summer in Staunton, Illinois. During one of the league games, a first baseman, Gregory Gvillo was attempting to field a ball thrown by his team mate at third base while keeping his foot on first base. Just after Gvillo caught the ball the batter collided with him while attempting to reach first base. The collision resulted in injuries to Gvillo.

Gvillo sued DeCamp alleging that it had provided a playing field that was unreasonably dangerous. Gvillo also claimed that DeCamp had not followed certain rules of the  Softball Association of America that are designed to prevent collisions like the one that caused his injury.

DeCamp filed a motion arguing that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because (1) it was protected by the contact sports exception and (2) ASA rules regarding the setup of fields did not apply to an “informal summer beer league” that was not sponsored by the ASA. The trial court agreed with DeCamp and entered judgment in DeCamp’s favor.

Gvillo appealed the judgment arguing that the contact sport exception did not apply to DeCamp because it was the organizer of the event rather than a participant in a game. Illinois courts had already determined that the contact sports exception applied to claims involving participants in softball games. The only case which addressed the application of the exception to non-participants involved a hockey game where one player had been injured by another player and the injured player had sued the organizers and the referees’ association for failing to properly instruct players and coaches on the rule against body checking from behind. The appellate court found that coaching and officiating involve “subjective decision making that often occurs in the middle of a fast-moving game” and that “it is difficult to imagine activities more prone to second guessing than coaching and officiating.” It held that the contact sports exception applied to the coaches and referees in that case.

Gvillo argued that the circumstances in his case were distinguishable from the two points made in the hockey case. DeCamp’s setting up of the softball diamond was not inherently subjective like coaching or refereeing decisions. And it also did not involve split-second decision-making in the middle of a game. The appellate court agreed with Gvillo. It also found that application of ASA rules did nothing to “interfere with vigorous participation in the sport.”

It is clear that Illinois courts view the contact sports exception narrowly so that it only protects those who are involved in the games and playing within the rules.

Gvillo v. DeCamp Junction, INc. 2011 Ill. App. (5th) 100262

The material on this blog is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Nor is the material promised or guaranteed to be current, complete, or up-to-date. If you have any questions, please contact Lance R. Minor.