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Fresh Air & Exercise

Good health and exercise usually go hand-in-hand. But sometimes engaging in athletic activities can result in injury or even disability. Three recent court decisions highlight the law’s view of responsibility for risks from athletic activity.

A high school student was struck in the cheek by a softball bat when a fellow student was swinging the bat during a warm-up drill. The student sued the school for negligent supervision and obtained a verdict in her favor. On appeal, the court reversed the verdict and ruled in favor of the school. The court explained that “a participant in an athletic activity is deemed to have assumed the ‘those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation.'” The court further explained that “it is well established that ‘the danger associated with people swinging bats . . . while warming up for the game’ is inherent in the game” and that the nature of the accident in this case did not “result from any ‘unassumed, concealed or unreasonably increased risks.'”

In the second case a man who continued to play golf in the rain broke his ankle when he slipped on a brick-and-wooden-railroad-tie staircase leading to the green on the 15th hole. The man sued the golf course for failure to install a handrail beside the staircase or for failure to use slip-resistant materials on the stairs. The court rejected the man’s claim because, said the court, “with the pleasures of playing in the rain . . . come the known risks of walking on wet steps and grounds.” The court explained that the man “knew that it was raining, and that the steps appeared to be wet and slippery. . . . He was, or should have been, aware of the risk of slipping. The fact that the stairs did not have a hand rail was an open and obvious condition. As an experienced golfer he should have appreciated the nature of the danger.”

And finally, a woman was injured when the horse she was riding ran beside a big tree and caused her leg to get yanked back into the tree, wrenching and twisting the woman’s whole torso. The woman sued the riding stable for negligence for putting her-an inexperienced rider-on an aggressive, recalcitrant, disobedient horse. The stable argued that the woman assumed the risk of her riding injury and sought to dismiss the case. The court denied the request to dismiss. The court acknowledged that “certain risks adhere in certain activities [and] participants may be chargeable with knowledge of those risks and not heard to complain when the foreseeable, albeit unfortunate, consequences of those risks occur.” But here, the court explained, the woman had expressly informed the stable of her lack of riding experience and the stable guide had informed her that there was no need for her “to control or steer the horse” because “the horses were trained and know what to do on this trail.” Further, before the accident occurred the woman had complained to the guide that her horse “nervous and jerky,” was balking and stumbling along the trail, and was becoming more and more unruly as the ride continued. The court observed that the woman did not assume the risk that the stable guide would not intervene to stop her ride in view of the potentially dangerous situation that was becoming increasingly evident.

So what are we to conclude from all of this? Reasonable exercise is a good for us. But, just as in many other areas of life, we need to be careful.

[Source material: Navarro v. City of New York, 1st Dep’t, Sept. 8, 2011 (softball case); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, E.D.N.Y., Aug. 26, 2011 (golf case); Vanderbrook v. Emerald Springs Ranch, Wayne County Sup. Ct., Aug. 29, 2011 (horseback riding case)]

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