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Recreational Sports Participants Require Showing of Reckless or Intentional Conduct (NJ)

November 21, 2018

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In <a href="">C.H. v. Rahway Board of Education</a>, a minor fourteen year old plaintiff (“C.H.”) was injured while participating in a student-teacher fundraising basketball game. Student participation was voluntary and the game was officiated by at least one referee. The minor plaintiff injured her knee retrieving a rebound after being boxed out by an adult teacher. The teacher was whistled for a foul; a few years later, the school district was served with a complaint.

The facts describe normal activity that occurs when players attempt to make rebounds during a basketball game. Plaintiff C.H. testified that she and the teacher both jumped to retrieve a rebound. The teacher, however, “shove[d] back,” which caused her to land off-balance after their upper bodies collided. This off-balance landing caused her to injure her knee. C.H. subsequently filed a claim seeking damages for negligent supervision and recklessness. After the discovery phase ended, the school district moved for summary judgment as a matter of law.

The trial court ruled for the school district. The court noted that C.H. failed to present any evidence that the district had engaged in negligent supervision, considering (1) the game was officiated by a referee, (2) five non-participating teachers supervised, and (3) C.H. failed to show how the injury could have been prevented by further supervision. The trial court also ruled that a participant in a recreational sport activity cannot assert a claim of mere negligence against a co-participant; instead, a plaintiff must show that the co-participant engaged in reckless or intentional conduct that caused the injury.

On appeal, a unanimous Appellate Division panel upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

Although school officials have a duty to supervise children in their care, that supervisory duty extends to “foreseeable dangers … [that] arise from the careless acts or intentional transgressions of others.” <span style="text-decoration: underline;">Frugis v. Bracigliano</span>. 177 N.J. 250, 268 (2003). The undisputed facts in this case, based on deposition testimony and first-hand accounts, did not reveal a game being conducted in a reckless or out-of-control manner. C.H.’s injury therefore was not the result of lacking supervision, or a breach of a school official’s supervisory duty, but rather her participation in a recreational sport activity.

Participants in recreational sports that cause injuries to other participants in a recreational sporting activity cannot be found liable for simple negligence. “[T]he duty of care applicable to participants in informal recreational sports is to avoid the infliction of injury caused by reckless or intentional conduct.” <span style="text-decoration: underline;">Schick v. Ferolito</span>, 167 N.J. 7, 12 (2001) quoting <span style="text-decoration: underline;">Crawn v. Campo</span>, 136 N.J. 494, 497 (1994). Since C.H. conceded that the teacher was not trying to injure her intentionally, the court looked for genuine issues of material fact showing the teacher acted recklessly when he jumped for the rebound. It found none.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the court rejected C.H.’s argument to impose a negligence standard in connection with the parties’ teacher/school official-student relationship. Rather than conduct an analysis examining the interplay between a school official’s duties to his or her students, the court simply ruled the facts in the record did not demonstrate that the teacher used his position to conduct himself any differently than a normal basketball player. As a result, there is no basis to impose a greater duty on him than any other participant in a recreational sporting activity.

Thanks to Brent Bouma for his contribution to this post. Please email <a href="">Vito A. Pinto</a> with any questions.


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