Illinois Hockey Trainer’s Negligence Claim Not Barred By ‘Contact-Sports’ Doctrine

A recent ruling by an Illinois Appellate Court reviewed whether the ‘contact-sports’ doctrine applies an independently contracted trainer who has been injured by an amateur sports player. The court overturned a ruling made by a lower court in the Illinois personal injury lawsuit.

The facts of the DuPage County case deal with a hockey trainer who brought an Illinois personal injury claim after sustaining permanent vision loss when he was struck in the eye by an errant hockey puck. The puck had been fired by an amateur hockey player who allegedly was “sniping” at bottles that were lined up on a nearby bench.

The DuPage County judge dismissed the trainer’s allegations of willful and wanton conduct on behalf of the player and the amateur team as well as the two counts of negligence against both defendants. In doing so the judge cited that the actions on behalf of the defendants qualified as ordinary carelessness under the Illinois contact-sports doctrine.

However, the Illinois Appellate Court disagreed with the DuPage County judge and reversed the lower court’s ruling, stating that the trainer’s claim was not barred under the contact-sports doctrine.

The Appellate Court’s ruling in Weisberg v. Chicago Steel, No. 2-08-0789 (Dec 31, 2009) stated that

as a trainer employed by an independent training company that contracted to provide training services to the arena, and who is not otherwise engaging in conduct inherent in the sport of hockey, did not bear a significant relationship to either the sport of hockey or the participants to the extent that the contact-sports exception should be invoked as a matter of policy.

The contact-sports exception was created by a prior Illinois Appellate Court in the case Nabozny v. Barnhill, 31 Ill.App.3d 212 (1975). The purpose behind the contact-sports doctrine was to create an exception to an ordinary Illinois negligence claim that would allow voluntary participants in contact sports to be held liable for injuries to co-participants caused by willful and wanton or intentional conduct, but not for injuries caused by ordinary negligence.

The contact-sports exception was created by the Nabozny decision for the express purpose of ensuring that the law did not place an unreasonable burden on youth’s free and vigorous participation in sports. The exception was meant to control a new field of Illinois personal injury litigation.

The reason the Illinois Appellate Court did not feel that the contact-sports doctrine applied to this specific case is that the plaintiff was a trainer employed by an independent training company who had been brought in to provide hockey training services to the arena. He was not engaged in any other capacity to other hockey activities. The court cited these case facts as the basis for their ruling that the Illinois contact-sports exception did not apply to this case.

The court further went on to state that the lower court had erroneously applied the contact-sports exception and had failed to consider the policy considerations the Illinois Supreme Court set forth in Karas v. Strevell, 227 Ill.2d 440 (2008). In addition to laying out several policy considerations to determine whether the contact-sports doctrine is applicable, the Illinois Supreme Court case stated that

courts should dismiss [complaints alleging willful and wanton conduct] sparingly in order to effect the policy of determining the presence of willfulness and wantonness based on the evidence and not the pleadings.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury lawsuits for over 30 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including River Forest, Oak Park, Calumet City, and Lisle.

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