When a child plays on a sports team or participates in physical education class, there is a risk of serious injury. If your child has been injured in these circumstances, it is possible to be compensated. Canadian courts have affirmed that an athlete, by willingly participating in a sport, does not assume responsibility for all risk of injury.
School boards, coaches, teachers and athletic organizations have a duty to supervise children playing sports in the manner of a “prudent or careful parent”, taking into account all the surrounding circumstances and the number of children under supervision. This “careful parent” standard means that schools and coaches must:
- Ensure that the activity was suitable for the children’s age and condition;
- Properly train and coach the children in the activity;
- Provide adequate equipment and arrange it suitably; and,
- Properly supervise the activity.[i]
For example, the school board Myers v. Peel County Board of Education failed to follow numbers 3 and 4 of the above list.[ii] In that case, a 15-year-old boy was injured while trying to dismount from the rings in gymnastics class. The Physical Education teacher had given Myers permission to practice on the rings without supervision. The teacher testified at trial that Myers had been taught the appropriate safety measures, such as having a “spotter” to break his fall. However, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the faculty should not have allowed students to use the rings without supervision. It was also found that the school did not provide adequate protective mats below the gymnastics equipment.
However, schools and coaches are only liable for reasonably foreseeable risks of injury. They will not be held liable if the injury was unforeseeable, or if the injury could not have been prevented by taking reasonable precautions.[iii]
Unforeseeable injuries include situations where a player demonstrates a deliberate intent to cause serious injury to another player.[iv] In Thomas v. Hamilton (City), the plaintiff broke his neck while tackling another player in a high school football game.[v] His coach had taught the team the correct techniques for tackling, such as instructing players to slightly extend their necks and make initial contact with their shoulders rather than their heads. It was established at trial that the plaintiff did not follow the correct tackling technique. The Ontario Court of Appeal therefore held that the coach and school board were not liable for Thomas’ injuries. The injury was sustained during a routine play and fell within the ambit of the inherent risks of contact sports.
Thomas also argued that he had a neck condition (termed “long, lean swan neck”) which made him more susceptible to neck injuries. It was alleged that the coach should have recognized this condition and warned Thomas about the increased risk. However, the court rejected this theory. It held that the “long, lean swan neck” theory was not widely known outside academic literature at the time, and coaches could not be expected to (a) know of the theory, and (b) recognize it in the player. Coaches are expected to demonstrate a higher level of skill and expertise in the sport than the average person, but they are not expected to know absolutely everything about the sport.
Finally, once a player has been injured, schools and coaches must provide prompt medical services. The coach in Poulton v. Notre Dame College was found liable for his player’s injuries because he refused to let the player see a doctor. The player went on to develop severe hip infections which may have been prevented by prompt medical treatment.[vi]
[i] Thornton v School Trustees of School District No 57 (Prince George), 73 DLR (3d) 35,  5 WWR 240; aff’d  2 SCR 267.
[ii] Myers v Peel County Board of Education,  2 SCR 21.
[iii] Dunn v University of Ottawa,  OJ No 2856.
[iv] Ibid at para 36.
[v] Thomas v Hamilton (City), Board of Education,  OJ No 2444.
[vi] Poulton et al v Notre Dame College et al (1975), 60 DLR (3d) 501.