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Vowles v Evans and Others, Court of Appeal

18 March 2003
The issues

Rugby – sports injury – referees liability.

The facts

The Claimant aged 24 was playing rugby for Llanharen Second 15. 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 Llanharen, but was called upon on the morning of the match for the First 15s 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 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 Llanharen. The Judge described the game as “hard fought but not dirty”. 30 minutes or so into the game, Llanharen’s Loose Head Prop went off with a dislocated shoulder. Llanharen 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 Llanharen 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 High Court Judge found for the Claimant. The Defendant appealed.

The decision

1. It was fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care on the Referee of an Adult Amateur Rugby match.

2. The Judge was entitled to proceed on the basis that Referees or the Welsh Rugby Union could obtain insurance cover.

3. Whilst rugby was a dangerous sport, the rules were designed to minimise those dangers and players’ safety was dependent on the rules being enforced. This was the Referee’s function. Players were entitled to rely on the Referee exercising reasonable care in the application of those functions.

4. The standard of care to be expected depended on all the circumstances. The threshold of liability was high. The allegations put it no higher than expecting basic competence.

5. The Referee had abdicated his responsibility in dealing with the issue of replacement of forwards. He did not make enquiry of the Llanharen Captain or Jones as to the suitability or training of Jones or of any other possible replacement. The Referee should not have permitted Jones to play in the front row and should have offered Llanharen the option of non-contested scrums. In failing to do so, he had breached his duty of care to the players. It was open to the Judge on the evidence to find that the breach had been a significant cause of the Claimant’s accident in the final scrum.

Appeal dismissed.

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