According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), youth sports provide a number of physical and social benefits. Youth sports allow children to develop new friendships, be physically active and learn how to work and play with others as part of a team. However, youth sports are not without problems — the biggest of which, according to NAYS, is adults.
Whether it's parents complaining about their child's playing time or an official's call, or coaches who forget that the players are children who just want to have fun and not necessarily win at all costs, misbehaving adults are causing children to abandon organized sports. A good example of how adults can negatively impact youth sports is Raymond Pink v. Rome Youth Hockey Association, Inc., 28 N.Y.3d 994; 63 N.E.3d 1148; 41 N.Y.S.3d 204 (2016).
Assault in the stands
In November 2006, the Rome (N.Y.) Youth Hockey Association rented a local arena owned by the City of Rome to host a hockey tournament for 13-year-old players. During a tournament game played by a team from Rome and a team from the Whitestown Youth Hockey Association, several fights broke out between players, and a number of players from both teams were ejected. In addition, the referee ejected the Whitestown coach for throwing an object onto the ice.
Watching the game was a crowd of about 75 spectators — mostly family and friends of the players — who were also misbehaving by yelling and name-calling at the referee and the opposing team. The game concluded without any physical altercation in the stands. After the game was over, however, a fight broke out between two female spectators in the stands, quickly escalating into a melee as several people, including plaintiff Raymond Pink, stepped in to break up the fight. While trying to intervene, Matthew Ricci, the brother of one of the two female spectators involved in the fight, punched Pink, causing a head injury.
As a result of his injuries, Pink sued the Rome Youth Hockey Association and the Whitestown Youth Hockey Association for negligence. In particular, Pink argued that the organizations had a duty to protect him from criminal assault. In support of this argument, Pink claimed as members of USA Hockey (the national governing organization for youth hockey), the defendants were negligent since they had failed to enforce USA Hockey's zero-tolerance policy.
The zero-tolerance policy states that since assaults can occur at hockey games, on-ice officials should remove spectators from the game for using obscene or vulgar language or for threatening or using physical violence.
The Rome Youth Hockey Association and Whitestown Youth Hockey Association argued that they did not have a duty to protect Pink from random assaults where there was no history of violence or physical confrontation, and they moved to have the case thrown out of court. The trial court, however, denied their motion and ruled that the tensions and poor behavior between spectators during the game essentially served as notice to the defendant associations to enforce the zero-tolerance policy. In particular, the court held that by failing to enforce the policy, the Rome Youth Hockey Association violated its legal duty to protect Pink. In addition, the trial court held that even though Ricci's actions represented a random criminal assault, the Rome Youth Hockey Association could still be liable for his injuries.
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On appeal, the Appellate Division, with one justice dissenting, modified the trial court's ruling and granted summary judgment in favor of the Whitestown Youth Hockey Association. In support of this decision, the Appellate Division ruled that since the Whitestown Youth Hockey Association had not leased the arena, it did not owe Pink a duty of care.
As for the Rome Youth Hockey Association, the Appellate Division concluded that there was still an issue as to whether they had a duty to protect Pink from Ricci's conduct, and, given the hostile environment in the arena before the fight, whether they knew or should have known of the likelihood of the fight. As a result, the Appellate Division held that it was ultimately the job of a jury to determine whether the Rome Youth Hockey Association had a duty to intercede and protect the plaintiff.
Having lost for a second time, the Rome Youth Hockey Association appealed to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals of New York, where the association once again argued that it did not owe a duty to protect Pink from Ricci's assault. In support of this argument, the association claimed that since there were no prior fights among spectators, it was not foreseeable that Pink would be assaulted, and therefore they could not have a duty to protect Pink from that unanticipated harm.
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Duty to protect?
In examining whether the Rome Youth Hockey Association had a duty to protect Pink, the Court of Appeals held that with respect to landowners and leaseholders, there is a duty to control the conduct of third parties on their premises when they have the opportunity to control such parties and are reasonably aware of the need for such control. That duty, the court concluded, includes minimizing foreseeable dangers on their property, including foreseeable criminal conduct.
The Court of Appeals then went on to recognize that there was a difference between foreseeability and duty. Foreseeability merely determines the scope of the duty once the duty is determined to exist. Therefore, the court held, while the Rome Youth Hockey Association owed a duty to protect spectators from foreseeable criminal conduct, that duty was defined by how likely it was that the aggressive behavior would lead to a criminal assault.
Using this standard, the Court of Appeals held that the Rome Youth Hockey Association could not have reasonably foreseen the criminal assault on Pink, and therefore it did not have a duty to take measures that may have prevented it. In the current case, the Court of Appeals found that the Rome Youth Hockey Association took measures to address player and spectator conduct. In addition, the court held that while the behavior of the fans may have been inappropriate, it did not create the risk of a criminal assault, particularly since such an assault had never happened before.
Association on notice
In looking at the Court of Appeal's decision in Pink v. Rome Youth Hockey Association, league officials and administrators should be able to take away two key points.
First, the court's decision not to find the Rome Youth Hockey Association negligent does not mean that the association does not have a legal duty to protect spectators from third-party assaults. In fact, the court was very clear that landowners and leaseholders have a legal duty to control the conduct of third parties on their premises when they have the opportunity to control such parties and are reasonably aware of the need for such control.
Second, landowners and leaseholders only have a duty to protect spectators from third-party assaults if the danger is reasonably foreseeable, including foreseeable criminal conduct. Therefore, the next time the two teams play, or even host another youth hockey tournament, the Rome Youth Hockey Association should be on notice that such conduct could lead to physical assaults among spectators in the stands, and it will therefore have a duty to protect the fans from that foreseeable harm.
Attorney John Wolohan is a professor of sports law in the David B. Falk College for Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University. Fei Gao is a Ph.D. student in the Sport Management program at the University of South Carolina.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Is spectator violence foreseeable for youth sports organizations?" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.