Browning -v- Odyssey and Belfast Giants – Liability

For sports crowds Ice Hockey is a sport which enjoys a large amount of popularity in North America. However, the International Ice Hockey Federation states that ice hockey is played in 30 countries. The Belfast Giants were founded 2000 in began playing their home games in the Odyssey Arena in December of that year. The UK elite league, in which they play, has existed in its present format since 2003.

A very recent decision has been passed by the High Court in Northern Ireland in the case of Courtney Harris Browning -v- Odyssey Trust Company Limited & Belfast Giants 2008 Limited. This case was in relation to an incident which occurred at an Ice Hockey game on 6th September 2008 at a game hosted at the Odyssey Arena between the Belfast Giants and the Cardiff Devils.

The Facts

The injured party, Courtney Harris Browning, was in attendance at this match. At the time of the incident she was 12 years old. She was in attendance with two of her friends. She was seated approximately 14 rows from the ice when she was struck on the head, just above her right eye by a puck which left the ice during a warm up exercise. This caused a laceration above her eye which has left her with a scar. The judge decided that an injury of this type would attract damages of approximately £30,000.00 if the injured party was successful.

The injured party brought proceedings for negligence and breach of the Defendants duty under the Occupiers Liability Act (Northern Ireland) 1957. Section 2(2) of this Act provides a duty for occupiers of land to take all care which is reasonable in the circumstances to see that any lawful visitor is safe on their premises. If a lawful visitor is injured on your premises it does not automatically mean that you are liable, you can defend these claims on the basis that you have taken as many steps that are reasonable to ensure persons are kept free from foreseeable risks.

The question then became, had the Defendants done all that is reasonable in the circumstances to ensure that the injured party, a lawful and indeed paying visitor, was kept safe.

The Evidence

The court heard evidence that the Defendants had a number of warnings issued about keeping an eye out for loose pucks. This warning was printed on the tickets issued to all spectators, warning signs were erected at each entrance to the arena and it was announced over the public announcement system on at least two occasions.

Additionally the court heard that the playing surface, the rink, was surrounded on all sides by a 1.08 meter wooden board. Above this there is a Perspex barrier which is at least 1.82 meters in size meaning that around the rink there was a barrier of at least 2.9 meters which extended upwards to 3.5 meters behind the nets.

The International Ice Hockey Federation rules and regulations set out the measures that teams had to take to protect the crowd from the risk of pucks leaving the ice. The precautions taken at the Odyssey Arena were above the minimum requirements set down and no other arena which hosted such matches in the UK had taken any measures different to those taken at the Odyssey Arena.

As well as this Todd Kelman, the General Manager of the Belfast Giants, who had been with the team manager for 7 years and as a player for the same time before this, as well as an ice hockey player in the United States of America and England, gave evidence to the court. Mr Kelman stated that no other arena he had visited in the UK had any better crowd defence measures in place. Mr Kelman noted that despite the measures in place pucks do occasionally go into the crowd without causing injury and he was unaware of a successful claim ever being brought in such an instance. Mr Kelman also noted that the puck was struck during the warm up and that the intensity of the player at the time would have been less than during open play and the puck would not have been moving at ‘full speed’ at this time.

The court was told that the erection of netting to the ceiling would be prohibitive from a costs perspective for the owners and the team. The Court also heard that extending the Perspex to the ceiling was not possible for a number of reasons and as such the danger could never be completely removed.

The Decision

After hearing all of the evidence and considering all the case law, Justice Gillen decided that the team and the Odyssey Arena had taken all practical steps to ensure the safety of the spectators and as such had not breached their duty under the Occupiers Liability Act.

The court decided that the steps taken to protect the crowd and ensure that pucks do not leave the ice were sufficient and that the Defendants had taken steps otherwise to ensure that people were aware of the risks. Mr Justice Gillen stated that an individual who willingly attends at a sporting event exposes themselves to the risk that sometimes pucks, balls or other equipment may leave the playing service and move with speed and force into the crowd. He stated that whilst the team and the arena had a duty to ensure lawful visitors were safe this was not an absolute duty (i.e. they did not have to prevent every possible situation) and that there is a certain assumption of risk by attending and there are “some dangers which every reasonable spectator foresees and of which he takes the risk”. Justice Gillen also opined that “such risks are amongst the jolts and jogs to be expected of sporting life”.

After coming to this conclusion, the judge found that there was no breach of duty by the Defendants and the case concluded.

If you have any queries regarding the Occupiers Liability Act or have any queries regarding the content or topics raised in this article please visit our litigation department or contact us at litigation@rgsinclair.co.uk

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