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Friday, 13 December, 2002, 15:36 GMT
Rugby ruling: the implications
On Friday, the High Court ruled that the Welsh Rugby Union was to blame for an accident during an amateur match which left a player paralysed for life.

Here, leading sports lawyer David Becker outlines the implications of this landmark ruling.

Mr Justice Morland's decision is an interesting one.

In a similar case in 1996, Smolden v Nolan v Whitworth, a rugby player was successful in his claim against the referee after the player broke his neck in a collapsed scrum.

Richard Vowles
The incident left Richard Vowles in a wheelchair

But that was in an under-19s game, where there was continuous collapsing of scrums and special procedures for the engagement of scrums which the referee did not follow.

In my view, Friday's ruling is significant in that it extends the principle that referees owe a duty of care to players in an adult rugby match, whether amateur or professional.

But this is not unexpected, because there is no legal reason why the principle should not extend to an amateur or professional adult player as opposed to an amateur colts player.

The WRU is obviously concerned about the decision and its implications.

But it is no bad thing if the judgement makes governing bodies more responsible for the on-field duty of care.

I do not expect that the judgement will have a big impact on all contact sports

David Becker

Governing bodies are there to ensure that the officials they appoint to referee a match, whatever the sport, uphold the laws of the game and protect the players - and to that extent, they have some responsibility.

I certainly don't think that the floodgates will open to claims against referees and governing bodies, within rugby union or other sports.

The reality is that each case must be looked at on merit, and the facts in the Smolden and Vowles cases were quite specific.

And I do not expect the judgement to have a big impact on other contact sports, as all sports are different.

For instance, both claims arose as a result of a collapsed scrum, which is quite specific to rugby union (even scrums in rugby league are different).

Another interesting point is that Vowles sued the chairman and secretary of Llanharan RFC, the club he was playing for, on the basis that the club also owed Vowles a duty of care.

This appears to be the first time that this has happened, although it is worth noting that the player was unsuccessful in this regard.

David Becker is a sports lawyer practising with the firm Hammond Suddards Edge.

See also:

05 Dec 02 | UK News
19 Jun 02 | Education
02 Dec 02 | England
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