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Vowles v Evans and the Welsh Rugby Union Limited and Others, High Court

2 January 2003
The issues

Rugby – sports injury – referees liability.

The facts

The Claimant then aged 24, was playing rugby for Llanharan 2nd Fifteen – he played Hooker. The match was a local Derby against Tondu. At the end of the match, in the last moments of injury time, the scrum collapsed and the Claimant suffered a dislocation of the neck, which resulted in permanent incomplete tetraplegia.

The Claimant’s brother had been selected as Hooker by Llanharan, but was called upon the morning of the match for the First 15’s game. The Claimant, who was expecting to be a reserve front row substitute, found himself playing as Hooker. Both teams were amateur, although the First Team was a professional/semi-professional.

The pitch was in a bad condition after a lot of rain and was boggy. There were many set scrums. The final score was 3 nil to Llanharan. The Judge described the game as “hard fought but not dirty”. 30 minutes or so into the game Llanharan’s Loose-Head Prop went off with a dislocated shoulder. Llanharan had no trained Front Row Forward to take his place. The Pack Leader, Christopher Jones, who had been playing as Flanker, took the Loose-Head Prop role. He had never been trained as a Front Row Forward, but had played years before in the front row in low level games and said he was willing to give it a go. The scrum in which the Claimant was injured, occurred in injury time as Llanharan were hoping to hold the Tondu Pack which was looking for a pushover try. The front rows failed to engage properly. The Referee blew and as the scrums parted, the Claimant collapsed to the ground.

The decision

1. It was illogical to draw a distinction between amateur and professional rugby. If anything, the risk of very serious injury to front row forwards is more likely to occur in the amateur rather than the professional game. There was no policy reason to protect the Welsh Rugby Union which was perfectly able in an age of lucrative television contracts to insure itself and its referees against claims.

2. The laws of the game provided (law 3) that the team must have 4 players who could play in front row positions and that in the event of a front row forward being ordered off or injured, the Referee should confer with the Captain of the team to decide whether another player was suitably trained to take the position. If no proper substitute could be found to replace that player, then the game should continue with non-contestable scrummages.

3. Referees were enjoined in the English Rugby Football Union Manual published in 1997 to have regard to safety as an overriding priority and to accept their primary role of protection of players. As a matter of policy it was just and reasonable that the law should impose upon a referee of an amateur rugby match a duty of care towards the safety of the players. Such a duty would be breached if the Claimant were to establish that the referee failed to take reasonable care for the safety of the players by sensible and appropriate application of the laws of rugby, having regard to the context and circumstances of the game.

The First Defendant, the Referee, had effectively abrogated his responsibility with regard to properly considering whether or not the match should have been allowed to proceed with set scrums with Christopher Jones as the substitute Loose-Head Prop. Effectively, he left it to Llanharan to decide whether to play non-contested scrums. He made no enquiries of the substitute Loose-Head prop as to his training and experience. The Coach and Captain of Llanharan, also Defendants, were wrong in allowing the desire not to forfeit points to override considerations of safety. The decision not to have non-contested scrums was not taken in the heat of the moment during fast-moving play, but was taken when play had stopped and after discussion.

4. On the balance of probability, the Judge was satisfied that the substitute Loose-Head Prop’s lack of technique and experience was a significant contributory cause of the unsatisfactory of the set scrummages, not only of collapses which were not a cause of the Claimant’s accident, but also mis-timed engagement which was. Evidence came from the Tondu Hooker that there were more collapsing scrums after Christopher Jones took over as Prop and that the scrummaging was farcical – “they kept collapsing”. Expert evidence received from two referees had been interesting, but not assisted the Judge in reaching any conclusions.

5. The claim would succeed against the First and Second Defendants, David Evans and the Welsh Rugby Union Limited failed as against the Sixth and Seventh Defenders, the Chairman and Honorary Secretary of Llanharan Rugby Football Club. They had no part in the decision to decline the option of non-contested scrums.

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