Blog: When spectators take the hit – spectator litigation in Ireland
William Fry lawyers Patrick Murphy and Laura Flanagan talk about spectator litigation in sport where spectators are struck by golf balls, rugby balls or ice hockey pucks while attending sporting events.
While litigation taken by spectators is relatively rare in Ireland, it has arisen in golf, ice hockey and rugby.
Duty of care
Claims brought by injured sports spectators are usually brought under traditional negligence principles. For liability in negligence to be attributed to the party defending a claim, which may be the sport’s governing body, the player, the sports club or indeed all three, a spectator’s claim must meet the following test:
- the defendant owed a duty of care to the spectator;
- the defendant breached that duty by falling below reasonable and accepted standards of care; and
- it was reasonably foreseeable that a breach of that duty would cause harm to that spectator.
Spectator litigation in golf
In 2020, the High Court heard the case of a spectator who was struck by a golf ball at a golf tournament. The plaintiff was hit on his forehead by a golf ball and knocked unconscious while attending the 2016 West of Ireland Championship for amateur golfers at the County Sligo Golf Club.
The golf ball was hit by Kevin Le Blanc, a top amateur golfer who later turned professional. The plaintiff argued that the shot taken by Mr Le Blanc was “an errant shot” and that Mr Le Blanc failed to shout “fore”. It is customary that a golfer and spectators yell “fore” to warn those nearby of an approaching ball.
The plaintiff also argued that both County Sligo Golf Club and the Golfing Union of Ireland, the organisers of the West of Ireland Championship, failed to take reasonable care for the safety of spectators. This included an alleged failure to give warnings to spectators that they ought not to be located at the place where the plaintiff suffered the injury. The claim against Mr Le Blanc is that he allegedly failed to warn spectators, including the plaintiff, of the dangers Mr Le Blanc ought to have been aware of. Ms Justice O’Hanlon has reserved judgment.
This recent golf-related case is not unique. Following the 1990 Irish Open at Portmarnock, a spectator who was struck on the head by a golf ball while sitting in a viewing stand took a case against Portmarnock Golf Club. In that case, the plaintiff presented evidence that the stand should have been placed 10 to 15 yards further back from the green. However, in refusing the claim, Mr Justice Martin found that there had been only one other similar incident in 10 years and that the defendant did not have a duty to provide against improbable or unlikely happenings.
Spectator litigation in rugby and ice hockey
More recently, High Court proceedings were issued against the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) by fans injured by rugby balls kicked into the Aviva Stadium stands during the 2016 Ireland v New Zealand match and the 2017 Munster v Saracens match. We understand from media reports that these cases have been dropped without any settlement.
If these actions had been successful, the IRFU may have needed to take measures to mitigate the risk of spectators being injured by rugby balls. Such steps could include erecting nets behind the posts. Major League Baseball has recently expanded the netting at its stadiums to protect spectators from foul balls, following a report showing over 808 injuries to spectators from errant baseballs between 2012 and 2019. However, mitigating measures are unlikely to be implement in rugby in Ireland due to the absence of any case law in favour of an injured spectator.
A claim arising from an ice hockey match in Northern Ireland demonstrates the high threshold for a plaintiff to succeed. In Courtney Harris-Browning v Odyssey Trust Company and Belfast Giants 2008 Limited  NIQB 39, the plaintiff was struck by a hockey puck in the warm-up, leaving a scar over her eye. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants were guilty of negligence and breach of the Occupiers’ Liability Act (Northern Ireland) Act 1957 for failing to provide barriers and netting to protect spectators from errant pucks.
The Court refused the claim, ruling in favour of the Odyssey Arena, on the basis that the Odyssey Arena, had taken precautions to prevent spectator injury. For example:
- there was a printed warning on the game ticket to “keep your eye on the puck at all times”;
- there were approximately 20 warning signs displayed on all entrances to the arena; and
- the PA system warned spectators to keep an eye on the pucks.
Will spectator litigation will become an issue for sports bodies in the future?
It remains difficult for a plaintiff to succeed in sport spectator litigation, especially for rugby, where rugby balls are kicked into the stands as part of the game.
However, even though it is implied that spectators are aware of the inherent dangers of attending live sports events, governing bodies, clubs and venues should remain alert to the risk of spectator claims if they do not point out the inherent dangers of their sport.