What is the Standard in the Standard of Care?

The Supreme Court of Canada in April of this year quashed a decision of the British Columbia Court of Appeal which had ordered a whole new trial in Mark Hamstra's suit against the B.C. Rugby Union, his former coach and the Langley School Board. It may be worthwhile to revisit the Hamstra decision in the context of what it says to coaches and their legal standard of care.

Mark Hamstra was 17 years old when he participated in a regional selection match in May 1986. The match was being run by the BC Rugby Union (BCRU) and the coach, Brian Rigby, was there as a selector on behalf of BCRU (the court described him as an agent of BCRU -- that is, he was a person authorized by the sport association to act for it). During the course of the second period of play the scrum collapsed and Hamstra's spinal cord was severed when a number of players fell on top of him. Hamstra claimed negligence on the part of the coach for allowing inexperienced, mismatched players to assume key roles in the scrum. It was this, Hamstra maintained, which caused the scrum to collapse and caused his catastrophic injury [Coaches Report, Summer 1995].

In order for the court to find the coach liable it was necessary for Hamstra to prove four things:

  • the coach owed him a duty of care
  • the coach breached the standard of care that duty imposed
  • an injury occurred
  • the injury was as a result of the breach of the standard of care

It cannot be refuted a coach owes a duty of care to an athlete under his or her authority, and so quite clearly Rigby owed Hamstra a duty to act with due care, as did the association under whose auspices the match took place. The original trial court dealt with the standard of care that should be applied to both the coach and to the association.

The Coach

The court said the standard of care imposed on Rigby should reflect the Laws of the Game.

To establish negligence on the part of Rigby, the test is whether he acted in accordance with the ordinary skill and care of a selector/coach in the circumstances in which he found himself on May 11, 1986. Further, as long as Rigby acted in accordance with the Laws of the Game as promulgated by the CRU [Canadian Rugby Union] and the instructions notes and guidelines accompanying those laws, he has met that test and cannot be found negligent.

It was clear from the notes and guidelines accompanying the Laws of the Game that players under 19 years of age were treated differently than adults in the game. But interestingly, and a point clearly taken into consideration by the judge, was that there existed a number of studies and articles from other countries about the risks and safety aspects of scrums involving youth. Most of these had appeared in medical journals, and many were in the hands of the Sports Medicine Council of British Columbia. With the exception of one article, none had made their way to the BCRU.

The court noted the BCRU did not have the resources to gather information coming from overseas, and had to rely upon CRU for such information. This no doubt influenced the judge in determining the standard of care of the coach and the knowledge the coach perhaps should have had and alternate techniques he may have used; however, the judge did go on to warn:

The evidence shows that the rugby community's awareness of serious cervical injury is now much greater than what it was prior to the plaintiff's injury. I want to make it clear in these reasons that the standard of care as it relates to the risk of serious debilitating cervical injury in British Columbia in May 1986 is, in my opinion, a lower one than the court would apply in British Columbia were the same injury to occur today in similar circumstances.

It is clear from this case the standard of care for the coach should reflect the skills of an ordinary coach of like position under similar circumstances. What is absolutely clear for all coaches is the need to stay abreast of emerging trends, skills and information in one's area of coaching expertise, and to make sure ones coaching technique, approach and content remain current.

The Association

There has been debate about the standard of care for the sport association. In the British Columbia case Smith v. Horizon Aero Sports Ltd. the Court held that the standard of care for a non-profit organization (in this case the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association) is that of a rescuer. A rescuer does not become liable to a victim to whom he or she is providing help, unless the rescuer's actions worsen the victim's situation. Using a public policy argument, the Court concluded the efforts of a voluntary, non-profit organization directed to "promoting excellence and safety" in any field of endeavour should be encouraged. A higher standard of care than that of a rescuer might discourage such organizations from continuing their efforts.

While the Court in Hamstra agreed with the rationale in that case, it also looked to the objects of the BCRU, which it said went well beyond "promoting excellence and safety". It was also involved in the promotion and organization of the sport of rugby. In such circumstances the court said the standard was higher than that of a rescuer and was more akin to the standard imposed on Rigby.

It is clear sport associations need to be current about what is happening in their sport. As well, the association may very well be held vicariously liable for coaches and others in their employment (whether volunteer or paid). They must ensure such people have the resources and skills necessary to do the job and meet the standard of care prescribed by the courts.

As a footnote, while it over-ruled the need for a new trial, the Supreme Court directed the British Columbia Court of Appeal to go back and review certain aspects of the case. It is already more than 10 years since the original accident, however, we'll still have to wait to see how this saga finally unfolds.

Originally published: Coaches Report (1997) Vol. 4(1)

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