If a person participating in athletics or recreational activities has knowledge of a certain risk involved in an activity, appreciates the danger involved, and still voluntarily exposes him or herself to the risk, it is undisputed that under the theory of assumption of risk he or she, if injured, cannot recover damages. In addition to sports participants, the assumption-of-risk defense has also been applied to spectators at sporting events. In Shain v. Racine Raiders Football Club [726 N.W.2d 346 (2006)], however, the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin was asked whether the defense could also be applied to coaches standing on the sideline.
Like a lot of semipro organizations, the Racine Raiders football team schedules all types of promotional halftime entertainment. During one popular event, local youth football teams were allowed to scrimmage on the field. In order to accommodate as many teams as possible, the Raiders divided the playing field crosswise into three fields, running sideline to sideline, rather than from end zone to end zone. As a result, the teams playing on the middle field were forced to share common out-of-bounds lines with the teams playing on either side. In addition, the fields were not painted or marked with cones to designate the temporarily altered sidelines for this halftime activity, and no referees officiated.
During one of these events, the team Scott Shain coached, the Union Grove Badgers, played on the middle field. Shain was standing on the "sideline" watching his players on the middle field, when a player in the game behind him was tackled into him, knocking Shain down and injuring his knee.
At the time of his injury, Shain had coached for eight years and knew that players commonly were pushed out of bounds at full speed. He himself had played in non-organized football games when he was growing up. In addition, he had attended Raiders games for many years, and watched Racine Youth football scrimmages offered as halftime entertainment.
Despite all that, after sustaining the injury, Shain filed suit against the Racine Raiders, Racine Youth Sports and their insurers, alleging negligence. Shain argued that the Raiders negligently organized, maintained and conducted the halftime activities by allowing three scrimmages to be played side by side, with no conventional sideline distance between the multiple fields. Shain argued that even five yards of sideline would have safely separated the middle scrimmage field from the other scrimmages.
In response to Shain's lawsuit, the defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Wisconsin's "Baseball Rule" barred Shain from recovering damages. Under the Baseball Rule, any spectator injured by a flying baseball is prohibited from suing the team or other responsible parties, the theory being that frequent foul balls are part of the game. Wisconsin courts have applied the rule to spectators at other sporting events, as well, but Shain argued that the Baseball Rule applied only to spectators and should not be expanded to include coaches.
While the circuit court acknowledged that the case did not fit the Baseball Rule perfectly, the court nonetheless held that the policies underlying the rule applied, and granted the Racine Raiders' motion for summary judgment.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin ruled that in order to decide the case, it first had to determine whether Shain was a spectator or a participant. If Shain were considered a spectator, the Court of Appeals held that its task would be to determine whether to expand the reach of the Baseball Rule to include not only the sport of football but coaches in all sports, too. If, however, Shain were found to be a participant, the Court of Appeals held that the Baseball Rule would not apply and it would have to assess Shain's claim under Wisconsin Statute § 895.525(4m), which requires a participant injured in a recreational sporting activity involving physical contact to prove that the participant who caused the injury acted recklessly or with intent to cause injury.
After listening to oral arguments, however, the court concluded that it was unnecessary to peg Shain as a spectator or as a participant. The most accurate characterization, the court concluded, was that Shain's role as a youth football coach was something of a hybrid of the two. Shain was a spectator because he was observing the game, albeit with the critical eye of a coach. He was also a participant of sorts, because although not fully immersed as a player, he was an integral part of the larger workings of his team, and he was on the field with his players.
Using this hybrid characterization, the court noted that if a spectator is held to know the risks involved in a sport by his or her mere presence at the event, it surely follows that a coach should be held to at least a similar standard. Especially since, as the court pointed out, coaching takes a person's level of involvement a step further by placing him or her immediately adjacent to the field of action. The sidelines, the court held, while not on the actual field of play, clearly fall within the danger zone during a football game. The atypical field layout does not alter the existence of this risk, and such a layout, the court held, does not represent the only risk of coaching the sport.
A coach, the court concluded, is therefore properly held to accept whatever contact is anticipated given the customs of the game. Whether spectator or participant, no one knows better than a coach the risks inherent in a contact sport such as football. In this particular instance, Shain knew that a game was being played directly behind him and that the players could run into him. Even with the admittedly unusual configurations of the football fields, the Court of Appeals held that Shain accepted the risk of contact.
In most states, the assumption-of-risk defense would have been enough to act as an absolute bar to Shain's case, but Wisconsin has abolished assumption of risk as an absolute defense.
Since Wisconsin law holds that assumption of risk is an element of contributory negligence, it was essential that the Raiders show that Shain contributed in some way to his own injury. Under contributory negligence, if an individual contributes to the harm suffered, neither party can recover damages (since both parties are at fault). By voluntarily exposing himself to the known risks associated with football, the court ruled that that was enough for Shain to have contributed to his injury.