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Sutton v Syston Rugby Football Club Limited, Court of Appeal, 20 October 2011

27 October 2011
The issues

Sport – rugby – inspection of pitch

The facts

The claimant was playing for his local rugby club, Syston, on 2 July 2007 when he was sixteen and a half. The accident happened during a pre-season training session. He was training with the under sixteen colts but the under 17 colts were also training at the same time. Three coaches were present. The coaches decided to change the training session to an informal tag rugby match, blending the two age groups. Thirty minutes into the match one of the coaches passed the ball to the claimant who saw an opening for a touch down try. As he was on the point of scoring he was diving. He fell onto right knee which was gashed by a plastic object, which the judge found to be a broken off part of a cricket boundary marker left behind by members of the cricket club, who had used the area a few days before. The marker had been a white triangle attached to a stake. The triangle had broken of leaving only a stub in the grass turf. The injury was severe and it was a likely consequence that the claimant would have progressive trouble with his knee towards middle age. The agreed measure of damages was £54,000.

The club admitted that there had been no general inspection of the pitch before the training session began, and that there should have been. The club said however, that the inspection would only have been for the obvious obstructions or difficulties such as broken glass or dog excrement and could not be a detailed inspection so as to discover broken of parts of cricket markers. The judge found that a check should have been conducted by walking across the pitch covering all or most of the ground at a reasonable walking pace. The person who did the inspection should have had in mind the previous use of the pitch. Whilst the inspection would not have been required to investigate below every blade of grass, a greater degree of attention needed to have been paid to the touch down ends of the pitch where players were expected to dive or fall on to the ground.

The judge further found that a reasonable inspection would have come across the cricket marker stub. The club appealed the decision.

It was important that the law should not lay down standards that were too difficult for ordinary coaches and match organisers to meet. Games of rugby were desirable activities within the meaning of Section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006.

The judge’s finding as to causation was a question of mixed law and fact. The judge had been wrong to impose a higher standard of inspection in relation to the touch down ends of the pitch. Moreover, he had not shown overwhelming confidence in his own conclusion as to causation. The only witness, who had actually seen the stub after the accident said it was sticking out of the soil below the level of the grass. Other witnesses had recorded the grass as being “lush”. The court could only conclude that a reasonable ‘walk over the pitch’ inspection would have been unlikely to reveal the stub or at least the claimant not been able to prove that such an inspection would on the balance of probabilities have revealed the stubs. Appeal allowed.

An inspection of the pitch should have occurred. The RFU provided risk assessment guidelines and stated that such guidelines were for the purpose of identifying unsafe conditions. It provided a safety check list including at paragraph two a recommendation to check the ground for foreign objects, such as glass, concrete, large stones and dog waste. The guidelines referred to matches but the court took the view that the duty should also apply to training sessions. The judge had been right to take the view that that a quick walk over the pitch would have been sufficient and to have decided that all or most of the ground should have been covered at a reasonable walking pace. He was wrong to take the view that a slightly more careful degree of attention should have been paid to the touch down ends. Whatever the appropriate standard of inspection was it should extend to the pitch as a whole rather than that there should be different standards depending on what part of the pitch was being inspected. A fall or tackle could have happened on any part of the pitch. A perimeter inspection would not have been sufficient.

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