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Gravil v Carroll (1) & Redruth Rugby Football Club (2), Court of Appeal, 18 June 2008

17 July 2008
The issues

Vicarious liability – rugby – sport – whether rugby club liable for assault by a player from its team during a match.

The facts

On the 29th October 2005 in a National League Division 2 Rugby Union match between Halifax and Redruth, Richard Carroll, playing for Redruth, punched Andrew Gravil. The Claimant was a prop forward for Halifax, the 1st Defendant played in the second row for Redruth. The accident happened in 46th minute after a scrum where an altercation developed involving the Claimant and two Redruth players, one of whom (the hooker) backed away. The First Defendant threw a punch which struck the Claimant and caused a blow out fracture of the right orbit

The First Defendant was shown a yellow card by the referee. After the match, Halifax cited the First Defendant and at an RFU disciplinary hearing the First Defendant admitted that he had deliberately assaulted the Claimant but denied pre-meditation and said he had been provoked. He was suspended for 8 weeks.

The matter went to Trial. The First Defendant took no part in the Trial and the Trial Judge held him liable to the Claimant. Damages were assessed at £8,500.00, none of which had been paid. The First Defendant did not appeal. The Claimant appealed to the Judge against the dismissal of his claim against the Second Defendant but his appeal failed. The Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The decision

Carroll had a contract with Redruth confirming his employment by the club. It provided that he would be a part-time employee and that his employment would end on the 31st May 2006, although it was in fact extended for a further year. He would receive a match fee of £250.00 and a win bonus of £50.00. In addition, the club would meet some of his expenses.

The long established rule was that an employer was vicariously liable for the torts of his employee committed in the course of his employment. The test, following Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd and Mattis v Pollock was whether the employees tort was so closely connected with his employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable. There was a very close connection between the punch and the First Defendant’s employment. He was employed to play rugby for the club and was doing so at the time as a second row forward. When he punched the Claimant there was still a melee of the kind which frequently occurred during rugby matches, even though the whistle had gone. The dvd of the match that the Court had seen showed that the melee was part of the game and was in no way independent of it. It was the kind of thing that both clubs expected to occur. A throwing of punches was not uncommon in situations like this, when the scrum was breaking up after the whistle had gone and, indeed, they could fairly be regarded as an ordinary, though undesirable, incident of a rugby match.

The fact that the First Defendant, like the Claimant, had other full-time employments was irrelevant.

Finally, the question had to be asked whether the close relationship between the punch and the employment was such that it would be fair and just to hold the club liable. The answer to that was plainly yes. It was now recognised that it was possible to be very seriously injured as a result of foul play during a rugby match and it was incumbent on players and clubs to take all reasonable steps to eradicate or at least minimise the risk of foul play which might cause injury. This involved clubs taking pro-active steps to stamp it out. There was an obvious temptation for clubs to turn a blind eye to foul play and the line between playing hard and playing dirty might be seen as a fine one. The temptation to cross the line in the scrum might be considerable unless active steps were taken by clubs to deter them from doing so.

The Judge had found that the punch was a serious breach of contract on the part of the First Defendant. That however, in the view of the Court of Appeal, indicated the close connection between the tort and the employment and not the reverse.

Appeal allowed.

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