As we enter the final stretch of the winter season, many of us will take to the ski slopes, ice rinks or other recreational venues to enjoy what’s left of it. While having a great time is always the number one goal, it is important to be aware of some of the assumed legal risks involved.
The recent decision of Levita v Alan Crew et al., 2015 ONSC 5316 is a reminder of some of the inherent risks assumed in recreational sports. In this case, the Plaintiff was a participant in a “non-contact” ice hockey league. Near the end of a game, he received a late body check near the boards resulting in a fractured right tibia and fibula. He required surgery and the insertion of 2 plates and 18 screws.
At the beginning of the season, he signed a waiver that was allegedly never explained to him and specifically excluded liability for the very claim he brought. The waiver included the following:
‘The risks and hazards of ice hockey include, but are not limited to, injuries from:
Collisions with the rink boards, hockey nets, and ice;
Being struck by hockey sticks and pucks;
Physical contact with other participants, resulting in injuries to the eyes, face, teeth, head and other parts of the body, bruises, sprains, cuts, scrapes, breaks, dislocations and spinal cord injuries which may render me permanently paralyzed”
The court found no liability on the part of the league or the offending player. In Justice Firestone’s analysis, he concluded the following at paragraph 85:
“The inherent risks in the game of hockey include bodily contact. This is the case even in a non-contact league. As the court stated in Nichols, at para. 18, “The no-contact nature of the match does not eliminate the inherent dangers of the sport of ice hockey. Players will inevitably collide, sticks will inevitably clash, pucks will fly in unforeseen directions.”
The court also discussed that by agreeing to play hockey and accepting its inherent risks, a player also gives his implied consent that there is some risk of injury. However, where there are injuries inflicted that show a “definite resolve to cause serious injury to another”, this will go well beyond what is acceptable risk.
In Levita v Alan Crew et al, the court concluded that due to conflicts with the location of the puck before the hit, questions about whether the hit was from behind or from the side and the insufficient evidence to ascertain a deliberate intention to injure, liability was not established.
With regard to the league itself, there was insufficient evidence to show the offending player posed a significant risk prior to the game. The league’s rules and punitive penalty system went above and beyond what was recommended for recreational hockey leagues by the Canadian Hockey Association. There was also no evidence its referees were unqualified or that the league failed to enforce the rules.
Interestingly, the court pointed out that even if the league had been found negligent in failing to provide a safe environment for the play of hockey, the waiver amounted to a “complete defence”. In particular, the waiver in the present case was “unambiguous as to the risks associated with the play of hockey.” The waiver specifically listed the risks and dangers and the wording described the very claim that was being pursued.
The fact that the waiver was not explained to the Plaintiff was not enough to dispose of the waiver’s effect. The court suggested it was open to the Plaintiff to satisfy himself that he understood the contents of the document before signing it.
Every case will be decided on its own facts. However, where there is a clear deliberate intention to cause harm, this will likely be treated outside the scope of implied consent.
Likewise, a clearly worded and unambiguous waiver specifically setting out the risks covered may be treated as a complete defence even if it is not explained. Therefore, making the extra effort to understand what it is you may be signing would be prudent.