Youth Sports Lawsuits

Courts weigh in on who's to blame for youth sports injuries.

Soccer game heading the ball near goal
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Imagine your young athlete is playing a game and bumps into another player, causing that child to fall and sustain an injury. Could the injured player sue your child, and you, for causing harm? When that question came before two New Jersey courts, judges said no. But what if you were on the flip side? What if you felt your child had been targeted by another player, who flouted the rules and deliberately tried to injure your kid?

Now how does a youth sports lawsuit sound?

The New Jersey Youth Sports Lawsuit

Here's what happened in this case, according to court documents. The incident happened during a lacrosse game, in a recreational league for fifth- and sixth-graders. In the final minute of the game, a 12-year-old player ran toward the goal line, attempting to maintain possession of the ball until the game ended. An 11-year-old from the opposing team tried to stop him, colliding with the offensive player and knocking him to the ground. The 12-year-old suffered a broken arm. Although referees threw penalty flags, they never actually imposed a penalty on the 11-year-old player.

So the injured player's parents sued, saying that the other boy's "negligent" and "reckless" action had caused their son's injury. A trial judge threw out the case, saying that the parents hadn't proved that the younger boy's actions were reckless enough for a person of his age in this setting.

The judge noted that he might have ruled differently if the boy were 17 instead of 11, and had "a more mature understanding of the consequences of his behavior."

The injured player's parents appealed this decision. The appellate court looked at the case from two perspectives. First, what does the law say about adults who intentionally or recklessly injure others during sports?

And second, what does the law say about children's liability for their actions?

Regarding the first question, the court cited several previous cases that had created a standard requiring proof of "intentional infliction of injury or recklessness" to make one player liable for causing injury to another.

In considering the second question, the court wrote: "children, particularly younger children, often need years of training, coaching, and experience to learn and adhere to the rules of a competitive sport. Children will inevitably commit fouls in sporting activities out of inexperience, youthful exuberance, lack of self-discipline, clumsiness, immaturity, frustration, or some combination of those traits. ... It would be unfair to hold children who engage in such sporting activities to the same expectations and standards of conduct as adult athletes."

Based on those two conclusions, the appeals court agreed with the lower court that the 11-year-old defensive player could not be held responsible for injuring the opposing player.

Could You Sue?

The New Jersey decisions, though they only affect cases in that state, may come as a relief to parents who worry that their child could be sued for inadvertently causing an injury during sports play or practice. However, I also consulted a lawyer who noted that there are times when a lawsuit might make sense: If your child (or more likely, teenager) was purposefully injured by another player, and other responsible adults, such as coaches or referees, took no action to try to protect him. The behavior of the player who caused the injury would have to be intentional and go beyond the expected nature of the competition.


C.J.R. v. G.A., N.J. Superior Court Appellate Division (December 2014).

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