Liability of sports clubs in the context of return to play
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It is now been over 3 months since sports clubs in this jurisdiction have enjoyed competitive action in their chosen discipline. June 29th is identified as the day upon which sport can resume in Ireland, with training under strict conditions allowed prior to that date. Governing bodies across the disciplines have quite appropriately issued return to play protocols to be followed by affiliated clubs to ensure welfare and safety of all participants, spectators, referees, coaches and all stakeholders in returning to play. Only time will judge the efficacy of such return to play protocols in keeping all stakeholders safe.
The prevailing fear of many club officials and governing bodies across the disciplines would be that the return to play protocols are insufficient in that club members and /or participants could be exposed to Covid-19 arising out of their participation in club activities.
The question then arises as to the liability of clubs to their members in such a scenario. The law in this jurisdiction in relation to the possibility of a member taking a legal action as against a club of which they are a member is relatively settled. The status of club members Vis a Vis each other, protects them from liability.
The seminal case in this area, now 30 years old, is the case of Barry Walsh -v- Bandon Rugby Club. This case involved the Captain of Bandon Rugby Club at that time who was injured in 1990 representing the club and he subsequently initiated personal injury proceedings against the Club that he had played for and captained.Judge Morris heard a preliminary issue as to whether Mr Walsh was a Club member or not. Judge Morris ruled that the Rules of the Constitution for the Election of Members had not been adhered to in Mr Walsh’s case and he therefore was not considered a member of the Club. It was adjudged therefore that he was entitled to proceed with his action against Bandon Rugby Club. The substantive issue of the Plaintiff’s personal injuries was never adjudicated upon by the Court subsequently and was resolved privately following the determination of the preliminary issue.
What does this mean for clubs in the post Covid-19 era?
In light of the foregoing, clubs would be immune from legal proceedings instituted by one of their members for what might be perceived as negligent exposure to Covid-19 or indeed negligent exposure to any other foreseeable risk.
Sports clubs must be conscious that players returning to action may not have regularised their membership prior to the cessation of activity or in cases where ongoing seasons were cancelled players membership may have lapsed – both these categories of player are regarded as non-members and in the eyes of the courts have a right of action against their club.
Strong and diligent administration policy by clubs ensuring the membership status of all players is essential in order to avoid any potential legal liability from non-members participating in club activity.