Foreseeability of injury in sport - an article by Richard Rowe, DAC Beachcroft Claims

Richard Rowe of DAC Beachcroft Claims

In the 36th edition of the SGSA newsletter we considered the civil liability of the sports ground owner and event organiser to spectators from risks inherent in sport.  It will be recalled that whilst a balance must be struck between a spectator's safety and their enjoyment of the sport on offer, the obligation is on the sports ground owner or event organiser to reduce the risk of injury to avoid foreseeable injury.  What, in law though is an unforeseeable injury in a sporting scenario? 

In the case of Bolton v Stone (1951)[1] the Claimant was struck by a cricket ball and injured whilst standing outside her house which was on an adjacent road to the cricket ground from where the ball was struck.  Whilst cricket balls had been known to leave the ground, and the sports ground owner had taken steps to attempt to prevent balls from leaving the ground, the 'straight-drive' played by the batsman was found to be an exceptional hit in comparison to anything previously seen on the ground.

The House of Lords found that it was not enough for the Claimant to show that the occupiers of the cricket ground could have foreseen the possibility that a ball might be hit out of the ground and may injure people on the road.  She had to go further than that and prove that they ought, as reasonable men, to have foreseen the probability of such an occurrence.  In the circumstances, and taking into account the rarity of the hit, the probability of such an occurrence was found to be very slight and it was not necessary for the occupiers of the ground to take precautions to avoid such a risk. 

Whilst the sports ground occupier succeeded in its defence, Lord Reid warned in the Judgment that he would have reached a different conclusion if he had believed the risk was anything other than "extremely small" because:

"I do not think that a reasonable man considering the matter from the point of view of safety would or should disregard any risk unless it is extremely small".

By way of contrast, in Miller v Jackson (1977)[2] despite a cricket club raising a fence to 15 feet high, sixes still landed in the property owners garden so regularly that the property owner was awarded damages and an injunction to prevent cricket being played on the pitch. 

In a rare exercise of its equitable jurisdiction, the Court of Appeal overturned the injunction on the basis that in the public interest the benefits of outdoor games outweighed the private interest of neighbouring householders even if the sportsmen were guilty of negligence.

The fact that an incident has not occurred in a certain way previously does not necessarily mean that it is not foreseeable.  In the case of Harrison v Vincent (1982)[3] a motorcycle sidecar competing in a race at Oliver's Mount collided with a recovery vehicle which was parked partly on a slip road leading off of a hairpin bend some 30 to 40 metres from the track.  The Court of Appeal accepted that the risk of collision and injury from such an occurrence was "not so far-fetched a possibility that someone should fail to take it into account".  Consequently the defence that the accident was not reasonably foreseeable, failed.

Similarly, 80,000 serious injury free laps prior to an accident where a sidecar struck the inner fence at a motor racing circuit was not enough to convince the Court of Appeal that the accident was not reasonably foreseeable in the case of Slack v Glenie (2000)[4].

The case law highlights again the importance of sports ground occupiers and event organisers undertaking detailed risk assessments to consider risks that emanate from a sporting event and taking appropriate precautions to guard against those risks. 

Whilst some accidents that occur are truly "unforeseeable", as highlighted by Lord Reid over 60 years ago in Bolton, such risks must be extremely small before they can properly be disregarded.

Richard Rowe is an Associate at DAC Beachcroft Claims Ltd.

Richard specialises in defending civil claims for personal injury on behalf of sporting governing bodies, clubs, stadium and sports ground owners, event organisers and participants arising from incidents in sport.  Richard can be contacted on 0121 698 5356 or

The DAC Beachcroft sport liability claims team can also be followed on Twitter at @dacbtotalsport


[1] (1951) A.C. 850

[2] (1977) Q.B. 966

[3] (1982) R.T.R 8

[4] Unreported