New Jersey Appellate Court Declines to Hold Minor Liable for Sports Injury

In a case of first impression, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, has declined to hold an eleven-year-old lacrosse player liable for a collision that resulted in a broken arm. In C.J.R. v. G.A., the Court established an approach to assessing liability against minors for sports-related injuries that significantly raises the bar for such claims.

The case concerned an incident near the end of a youth lacrosse game, in which a twelve- year-old player had possession of the ball and was attempting to run out the clock. According to the player’s coach, an eleven-year-old member of the opposing team left his feet and hit the plaintiff with either his helmet or stick in the player’s midsection. The member of the opposing team struck the player’s torso and left arm, resulting in a severe arm fracture that required surgery, and resulted in residual pain.

The injured player and his father filed suit against the player who caused the injury and his father. The plaintiffs contended that the defendant player acted recklessly and violated the rules of lacrosse. The plaintiffs also argued that the player’s father had negligently supervised his child.

The trial court granted summary judgment in the defendant father’s favor on the negligent supervision claim, which was not appealed. The trial court subsequently granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant player, holding that in light of the player’s age, he had not acted with the level of recklessness required to create liability.

The Appellate Division began its analysis by reviewing case law regarding the standards of tort liability for adults who injure others in sports activities. The Court noted that in Schick v. Ferolito, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that tort liability for sports injuries required a demonstration of reckless conduct in which the plaintiff “intentionally commits an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow.”

The Court then examined the standards for tort liability for minors under New Jersey law. The Court noted that New Jersey applies a rebuttable presumption that children under seven are incapable of negligence. For older children, New Jersey law applies a “fact-sensitive” approach, taking into account the age and other characteristics of the minor, as well as the surrounding circumstances.

Based upon these principles, the Court adopted a “two-layer” approach to analyzing claims regarding sports injuries by minors. First, courts must examine whether “the opposing player’s injurious conduct would be actionable if it were committed by an adult, evaluating whether there is sufficient proof of the defendant player’s intent to inflict bodily injury or recklessness.” If this is established, courts must then address “whether it would be reasonable in the particular youth sports setting to expect a minor of the same age and characteristics as the defendant to refrain from the injurious physical contact.” This approach reflected the Court’s belief that it “would be unfair to hold children who engage in such sporting activities to the same expectations and standards of conduct as adult athletes.”

Applying this “two-layer” approach to the case before it, the Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that the defendant lacrosse player was not liable. The Court emphasized that the defendant was eleven years old, and was participating in a league for less experienced players. The Court also noted that the incident should be viewed within its context, having occurred near the end of a close game in which the defendant needed to regain possession in order for his team to have a chance to win. The Court also observed that there was no pre-existing enmity between the injured player and the defendant. The Court therefore concluded that even if it could be assumed that similar conduct from an adult was reckless, recklessness could not be found here given the players’ status as minors.

The “two-layer” approach established by the Court may make it challenging to pursue claims against minors for sports injuries, particularly with regard to pre-teens. Courts may be less likely to protect high school athletes from liability for reckless conduct, especially if their training and expertise justifies holding them to the same standards of conduct as adult athletes. However, the flexible approach adopted by the Court will help ensure that minors and their families do not face liability for sports injuries based upon unreasonable standards of conduct.