Regardless of their certification level, experience, employment or volunteer status, sport discipline, or location, coaches have a legal obligation to provide a safe environment for their athletes at all times.
This obligation extends to ensuring that coaches have met the standard of care that is expected of them in the following areas:
If coaches do not provide a safe environment for participants, they risk being sued for negligence. This risk is understandably one of the biggest concerns raised by coaches, particularly in today’s litigious culture. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the law does not expect coaches to be perfect in their behaviour, but rather to be reasonable, and to act as any other reasonable coach would act in similar circumstances.
A coach’s conduct would only be deemed to be negligent when it can be proven that a duty of care exists, that the duty imposes a standard of care that is not met by the coach, that harm or loss occurs as a result, and that the coach’s failure to meet the standard caused, or substantially contributed to, the harm or loss.
Coaches must have a clear understanding of the standard of care owed to athletes. This understanding can be challenging, however, as the standard of care varies with the type of activity, number and age of participants, location of the program, skill level, weather conditions, and other factors.
Coaches need to look to four sources to determine which standard is owed in any given circumstance:
Reasonable and prudent coaches should be familiar with the written policies that govern their conduct, the unwritten norms, and the relevant case law as it applies to coaches, and they should trust their intuitive judgment. They should also be aware of the standard of care expected of them and meet or exceed this standard by anticipating risks and taking steps to manage risks in all coaching activities.
Katherine Fast, a Canadian lawyer and author of Sport Liability Law: A Guide for Amateur Sports Organizations and Their Insurers, suggested that with respect to instruction, supervision, and the provision of medical care, coaches must do the following in order to protect themselves from liability:
Coaches should be encouraged to develop their own personal risk management plan, which will help provide a safe environment as well as protect them from liability – or reduce the chances of getting sued - when injury cannot be prevented.
What Sport Organizations Can Do
Risk management is also crucial for sport organizations, which also need to properly manage and assess risk in order to avoid liability.
Fast, in Sport Liability Law: A Guide for Amateur Sports Organizations and Their Insurers, listed recommendations that sport organizations should consider in order to reduce the risk of injuries to participants, defend themselves against lawsuits, reduce insurance costs, and protect their coaches, officials, and volunteers. These recommendations included:
Though these tasks may seem daunting, it bears repeating that the law does not expect perfection, only reasonableness. As long as coaches can demonstrate that they acted reasonably in any given situation, the likelihood of being found negligent is significantly reduced.
Still, having adequate insurance remains critical for sport organizations and coaches alike, particularly volunteer coaches. Coaches should not assume they are covered by their sport organization - they must be sure to enquire about insurance to make sure they are covered.
 Sport Liability Law: A guide for Amateur Sports Organizations and Their Insurers. By: Katherine S. Fast, Dolden Wallace Folick LLP Insurance Lawyers, January 2004
An edited version of this article was originally published in: Coaches Plan du Coach (Winter 2015) Vol.3(1)