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Monday, July 19, 2004

Pete Rose Rule and Legal Liability:  A New York state court is evaluating whether a player's violation of a league rule designed to prevent injury can lead to legal liability when violated.  John Knowles violated such a rule, which prohibits crashing into other players, like Pete Rose did so famously in the 1970 All-Star Game, in a local softball game.  Also like Rose, Knowles injured the opposing player, breaking his leg.  Now the other player has sued, claiming that the league rule trumps the assumption-of-risk doctrine, paving the way for liability in tort.
The trial court agreed in denying the defendant's motion for summary judgment.  In denying the motion, the judge wrote:
Fundamentally, when an organization adopts rules of conduct which define its members' duties requiring, as relevant here, a base runner to slide, to avoid the fielder or to submit to a tag, its violation may expose the offender to liability for any resulting personal injury.

The trial began last week and will be heard in front of a jury.
This harkens back to the debate of the spring of whether a player should be held legally liable for on-field actions.  Obviously, the context in this case is far different than in the Bertuzzi case because the players here are not professional.  Thus, it is far tougher to make the argument that what occurred was "part of the game."  Adults play in recreational leagues for fun and risk enough injury due to aging muscles.  Rules such as the one in question are designed to ensure that no one endures an unnecessary risk of injury.  Thus, one can make a compelling argument that breaking it should lead to legal liability.
Of course, one cannot discount the fact that when people play sports, they often get caught up in the heat of the action, and are not always thinking clearly.  Unlike in the Bertuzzi case, which was a premeditated battery, there most likely is no evidence in this case of an intent to injure, or even an intent to break the rules.  The defendant seems guilty only of an intent to win, and in doing so, unfortunately injuring an opponent.  Viewed in this light, it seems to be much more just a "part of the game."  It certainly does not seem to warrant the $2 million being sought, and may not even warrant payment of medical bills.
Unless the defendant can be shown to have often broken or disregarded the rules, or have had some intent to injure the plaintiff, it does not seem that legal liability should follow.  All sports create a risk of injury, and it seems unjust to penalize a player for an on-field action, taken in the heat of the game, which had an unfortunate result.  But now it is up to the six-person jury to decide.
In related news, Bertuzzi received a break in his criminal case, when officials agreed to try him in a court with a far more lenient punishment scheme.
Hat tip: Martin Schwimmer of the Trademark Blog.


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