Written by attorney Gregory Garth Brown

Implied Assumption of Risk for Sports Participants

According to tort law, participants in sporting events are held to a different standard than people interacting in everyday situations. The average football player is allowed to hit and tackle their opponent, whereas the same conduct on the street would be actionable battery. Courts are aware of this obvious fact, and, thus, apply certain laws differently as they relates to sports. Assumption of risk is such a doctrine. Though it also applies in non-sporting situations, assumption of the risk’s application in sporting events is unique.

Between Co-Participants

A participant in an active sport breaches a legal duty of care to other participants only if the participant intentionally injures another player, engages in conduct so reckless to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport, or fails to use care not to increase the risk of a participant over and above those ordinarily in the sport. Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 315-16, 320-21 (1992).

The purpose of this rule is to ensure that the “fervor of athletic competition will not be chilled by the constant threat of litigation from every misstep, sharp turn and sudden stop." Stimson v. Carlson, 11 Cal.App.4th 1201, 1206 (1992).

Application to Landowners/Sporting Event Organizers

In suits by participants in sporting events against the organizer of the event or owner of the premises, the implied assumption of risk doctrine applies, but in a different manner.

For these defendants, there is a general duty not to increase risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport. This duty includes providing a safe field free from any dangerous conditions, but does not include preventing the ordinary risks of a sport. Such conduct is totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in a sport, and any risks resulting from that conduct are not inherent to the sport, if the prohibition of the conduct would neither deter vigorous participation in the sport nor otherwise fundamentally alter the nature of the sport. Freeman v. Hale, 30 Cal.App.4th 1388, 1394 (1994).

Application to Personal Injury Lawsuits

If the court finds that an injured participant “assumed the risk" of injury, then a defendant has two different defenses available. These defenses are known as “primary" and “secondary" assumption of risk.

Primary Assumption of Risk

“Primary assumption of risk" describes the situation in which the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury. Thus , if the Court finds the assumption of risk doctrine applies, it operates as a complete defense to the plaintiff's recovery. Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 314-15 (1992).

Secondary Assumption of Risk

"Secondary assumption of risk" involves a situation in which the defendant owes a duty of care to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff knows of the risk and decides to encounter it anyway. Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 315 (1992). In this situation, the defendant’s fault is reduced by the proportion that the participant contributed to their own injury.


Participants in sporting events assume certain risks while competing in the sport. Risks of injury due to ordinary competition will not be actionable against co-participants and other third parties. If, however, a person or entity goes beyond the risks inherent in the sport and an injury results, then the assumption of risk doctrine will not apply and grounds for a lawsuit will be present.

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