In a case of first impression, the Appellate Division recently analyzed a minor athlete’s liability for injuries sustained by another athlete during a game. In C.J.R. v. G.A., A-2771-13T3, the twelve year old plaintiff lacrosse player, C.J.R., was injured by an eleven year-old player, G.A., on the opposing team during the final seconds of a game between their respective teams. The two players were on the team for less-experienced players in their age group in their respective towns. C.J.R. played for the Medford youth lacrosse team. With his team in the lead, C.J.R. controlled the ball with approximately twenty seconds left on the game clock. After receiving the ball at the midfield, he ran to the sideline in an attempt to run out the clock. G.A., who played for the Marlton youth lacrosse team, allegedly ran full force at C.J.R. G.A. left his feet and hit C.J.R. with his stick or helmet across C.J.R.’s midsection. The collision knocked C.J.R. off his feet and onto the ground. He sustained a broken arm as a result of the collision. The game was stopped and C.J.R. was brought to the emergency room where he underwent an open reduction surgery to repair the arm.
The Defendant, G.A., was granted summary judgment by the Trial court. The issue on appeal was twofold. First, whether G.A.’s alleged injurious conduct would be actionable if it were committed by an adult, based on sufficient proof of the Defendant’s intent or recklessness as required by Schick v. Ferolito, 167 N.J. 7 (2001) and Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494 (1994). Second, if so, whether it would be reasonable in the youth sports setting to expect a minor of G.A.’s age and similar characteristics to refrain from the injurious physical contact alleged by the Plaintiff.
The Appellate Division decided that, on the facts of the case, the second inquiry must be answered in the negative. The Appellate Division noted that the issue presented was an issue of first impression in the state of New Jersey. In making its decision, it was guided by two discrete areas of tort law: (1) liability for injuries in the context of sporting activity; and (2) liability of minors in tort based on their age and other characteristics.
The Appellate Division relied on the holdings in Schick v. Ferolito, 167 N.J. 7 (2001), and Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494 (1994), as the governing standard for tort liability of adults who injure others while engaging in a sporting activity. The court noted that in order to establish liability for injuries occurring in sporting activities, a Plaintiff must prove an intentional infliction of injury or recklessness due to the physicality of sports and its high level of emotional intensity. Recklessness, as outlined by the Schick decision is when the actor “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, and which thus is usually accompanied by a conscious indifference to consequences.” Schick, 167 N.J. 7, at 19.
The C.J.R. court then went on to discuss liability of minors in tort. The court applied the fact-sensitive and context-specific approach for minors older than the age of seven pursuant to Berberian v. Lynn, 179 N.J. 290, 298 (2004). Under this approach “a child’s conduct should be measured in light of his or her capacity to exercise care under all attendant circumstances.” Berberian, 179 N.J. at 298. The C.J.R. court highlighted the rationale for such an approach in that younger children often act impulsively without considering the attendant risks of their actions. Relying on the case law above and out-of-state cases involving the alleged recklessness of youth sports players, the court fashioned the following double-layered approach to be applied in the context of youth-sports-related injurious conduct. First, “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; and, if so, 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.” C.J.R. v. G.A., A-2771-13T3, at *18.
Applying the above standard to the facts of the case, the Appellate Division held that the Defendant, G.A., was not liable for the Plaintiff’s injuries because a reasonable jury could not find that G.A.’s actions rose to the level of recklessness. The court relied on the fact that the Defendant was only eleven years old at the time of the incident, he was playing in the lesser-experienced league for children of his age, his team was down and the only way to win was to get the ball back from C.J.R., and there was no proof of a pre-existing enmity between the players.
This case is significant in deciding an unsettled area of law in the personal injury context. With this decision courts throughout the State will have guidance in deciding how to approach the issue of tort liability for minor athletes.