Spectators; they do not sign a release. They may not be able to assume the risk, what duty is owed to a spectator?

Organizers of a rugby tournament owed no duty to spectators at the tournament who were free to do at any time from the dangers and risks of lighting.

Patton v. United States Of America Rugby Football, Union, LTD., 381 Md. 627; 851 A.2d 566; 2004 Md. LEXIS 308

State: Maryland, Court of Appeals for Maryland

Plaintiff: Judith Edwards Patton (wife of Donald Patton), acting in both an individual capacity and as personal representative of the estate of Donald Patton; Sophia P. Patton and Robert C. Patton (the parents of Donald Patton); Robert Carson Patton, II; and Meredith Patton (Donald’s daughter).

Defendant: United States of America Rugby Football Union, Ltd., d/b/a USA Rugby (“USA Rugby”), the Mid- Atlantic Rugby Football Union, Inc. ( “MARFU”), the Potomac Rugby Union, Inc. (“PRU”), the Potomac Society of Rugby Football Referees, Inc. (“Referees’ Society”), Kevin Eager, n2 and Steven Quigg,

Plaintiff Claims: liable in tort for the death of Donald Patton and the injuries suffered by Robert Patton. This liability, Appellants contended, was due to Defendants’/Appellees’ failure to employ proper policies and procedures to protect players and spectators at the tournament from lightning strikes

Defendant Defenses: No duty, Maryland Recreational Use Statute and release signed by the survivor plaintiff/rugby player

Holding:

Year: 2004

This case is a little different for this site; it concerns a rugby game. However, the instrumentality causing the injury was a lighting strike to a player and a spectator.

The plaintiff’s father and son attended a rugby match for the son to play and the father to cheer. A game commenced which the son was playing. The father was on the sidelines watching the game. During the game, a thunderstorm developed and lightning struck in the area. The rugby match was continued even though several other games in the tournament had been ended because of the weather.

Eventually, the match ended. The two plaintiffs’ then ran to some trees where they had left their belongings and took off for their car. On the way, lightning struck killing the father and severely injuring the son.

The plaintiffs were the surviving player and the relatives of the deceased. The defendants were the sponsoring organization, the local organization, the referee association and individual defendants. The plaintiff’s claimed the defendants should have:

(a) Have and implement proper policies and procedures regarding the protection of players and spectators from adverse weather conditions and lightning;

“(b) Have and implement a policy regarding the safe evacuation of players and spectators from the fields of play at its matches when lightning is present;

“(c) Safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the players and spectators at its matches;

“(d) Terminate the rugby match and tournament when lightning is present;

“(e) Monitor and detect dangerous conditions associated with its matches; and

“(f) Train, supervise, monitor and control actions of officials prior to ensure the safety of the participants and spectators from dangerous lightning strikes.”

Several motions to dismiss were filed and the complaint was amended to defeat the motions. Eventually, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint, and the appellate court stepped in after the dismissal and issued a writ of certiorari removing it from the Court of Special Appeals to the Appellate Court. The Appellate Court is the top court in Maryland, similar to the Supreme Court in other states.

A supreme court rarely issues a writ to remove a case before the intermediary appellate court has had a chance to review the case.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

Under Maryland law, the plaintiffs have to prove one or more of the defendants were negligent. That means:

“(1) that the defendant was under a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury,

(2) that the defendant breached that duty,

(3) that the plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss, and

(4) that the loss or injury proximately resulted from the defendant’s breach of the duty

The requirements to prove negligence in Maryland are similar or identical to most other states.

The issue thought court stated was whether a legal duty was owed in this case.

As established in Maryland jurisprudence over a century ago: there can be no negligence where there is no duty that is due; for negligence is the breach of some duty that one person owes to another.

The first and most important step in determining whether a duty exists is to asses several issues in the relationship between the plaintiff(s) and the defendant(s) to determine if a legal duty is owed.

In determining the existence of a duty, we consider, among other things: the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered the injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach, and the availability, cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.

Of these, the major test is one of foreseeability. “The foreseeability test “is simply intended to reflect current societal standards with respect to an acceptable nexus between the negligent act and the ensuing harm.”” At the same time, a legal duty does not necessarily exist because of a moral duty.

Even if the foreseeability test is passed by the plaintiff that alone does not prove the existence of a duty.

Duty can be created by ““(1) by statute or rule; (2) by contractual or other private relationship; or (3) indirectly or impliedly by virtue of the relationship between the tortfeasor and a third party.”

Whether a duty exists is also based on policy reasons; whether a type of behavior should be encouraged or discouraged for the benefit of all.

The plaintiffs argued that a special relationship existed between the defendants and the injured, the third way a duty is created set forth above. The plaintiff’s argued this based on their idea that a special relationship exists as spectators at sporting events.

A participant in a sporting event, by the very nature of the sport, trusts that his personal welfare will be protected by those controlling the event. Stated another way, it is reasonably foreseeable that both the player, and the player’s father, will continue to participate in the match, as []long as the match is not stopped by the governing bodies in charge. It also is reasonably foreseeable that, when matches are played in thunderstorms, there is a substantial risk of injury from lightning. And finally, it is reasonably foreseeable that a father will not abandon his son, when he sees those who have assumed responsibility for his son’s welfare placing his son in a perilous condition . . . .

Honestly, I would suspect that most spectators at most sporting events would believe the above to be true.

Here the court did not agree with the idea that a special relationship had been created or existed with spectators.

…the creation of a ‘special duty’ by virtue of a ‘special relationship’ between the parties can be established by either (1) the inherent nature of the relationship between the parties; or (2) by one party undertaking to protect or assist the other party, and thus often inducing reliance upon the conduct of the acting party.”

The court stated that generally, for a duty to exist, there must be an element of dependence, which is lacking in this case. The court raised another case that failed to find a special duty. IN that case a woman died of hypothermia because the emergency telephone operator gave an incorrect address to the policeman looking for the woman.

..“for a “special relationship” to exist between an emergency telephone operator and a person in need of assistance, it must be shown that the telephone operator affirmatively acted to protect the decedent or a specific group of individuals like the decedent, thereby inducing specific reliance by an individual on the telephone operator’s conduct.

There must be an element of ceding self-control by the injured party to the defendant to create a duty which is lacking in the present case.

In a special relationship, one person entrusts himself to the control and protection of another, with a consequent loss of control to protect himself. The duty to protect is imposed upon the person in control because he is in the best position to provide a place of safety. Thus, the determination whether a duty-imposing special relationship exists in a particular case involves the determination whether the plaintiff entrusted himself to the control and protection of the defendant, with a consequent loss of control to protect himself.

The court then looked at the risk presented by thunderstorms and found that there was less liability owed by a defendant to the risk created by lightning. The court, quoting another state court found “…risks and dangers associated with playing golf in a lightning storm are rather obvious to most adults.”

The Court concluded that “it is reasonable to infer that a reasonably prudent adult can recognize the approach of a severe thunderstorm and know that it is time to pack up the clubs and leave before the storm begins to wreak havoc.”

The court agreed with the trial court and found the defendants did not owe a duty to the plaintiffs based on their relationship and because the risks of thunderstorms were known to all.

So Now What?

Would this case have had a different outcome of the plaintiff had paid to attend the event and was at a specific location because the defendant told the spectator they paid to be at that location, or they were only allowed at a particular location?

In this case, the plaintiffs were free to leave the tournament at any time.

Spectators create a very different risk for event organizers. Do spectators at ski races understand a skier can leave the course and hit them? Do spectators at any match with a ball understand the ball always leaves the field of play and can cause injury to them?

Bicycle races are famous for spectators being allowed on the track where they commonly interfere with racers, but do they understand that they may also receive an injury by being there.

However, once the event organizer attempts to provide additional safeguards or warnings for the spectators, they may change the relationship between themselves and the spectators crating liability. You can protect the participants in the event, match or race and at the same time provide protection to spectators, but providing protection for spectators may increase your liability and in some cases increase the risk to players of the game.

Spectators for a risk manager are a difficult risk to understand and deal with.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Patton v. United States Of America Rugby Football, Union, LTD., 381 Md. 627; 851 A.2d 566; 2004 Md. LEXIS 308

Patton v. United States Of America Rugby Football, Union, LTD., 381 Md. 627; 851 A.2d 566; 2004 Md. LEXIS 308

Judith Edwards Patton, Individually, and as the surViving Spouse of Donald Lee Patton, and as Personal Representative and Executor for the Estate of Donald Lee pattOn, et al. V. United States of America Rugby Football, Union, ltd. D/b/a USA Rugby, et al.

No. 113, September Term, 2003

Court of Appeals of Maryland

381 Md. 627; 851 A.2d 566; 2004 Md. LEXIS 308

June 10, 2004, Filed

Prior History: [***1] Appeal from the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County pursuant to certiorari to the Court of Special Appeals. Rodney C. Warren, JUDGE.

Patton v. USA Rugby, 379 Md. 224, 841 A.2d 339, 2004 Md. LEXIS 61 (2004)

Disposition: Affirmed.

Headnotes: Torts – Negligence – Duty – Special Relationship

An amateur rugby player and his father, who was a spectator, were struck by lightning at a rugby tournament. The player was injured and the spectator killed. Various members of the family filed suit alleging negligence against the rugby tournament organizers, the game referee, and related organizations for not taking precautions to avert the incident.

Held: The element of dependence and ceding of control by the injured party that is needed to find a “special relationship” is absent in this case. Our decision is consistent with our view of narrowly construing the “special relationship” exception so as not to impose broad liability for every group activity. The rugby player and spectator were free to leave the voluntary, amateur tournament at any time and their movements were not restricted by the tournament organizers. An amateur sporting event is a voluntary affair, and the participants are capable of leaving the field under their own volition if they feel their lives are in danger. The changing weather conditions were visible to all competent adults. The spectators and participants could have sought shelter at any time they deemed it appropriate to do so. It is unreasonable to impose a duty on the organizers of amateur outdoor events to warn spectators or adult participants of a weather condition that everyone present is fully able to observe and react to on his or her own. The approach of a thunderstorm is readily apparent to reasonably prudent adults and, therefore, it is every adult ‘s responsibility to protect himself or herself from the weather. There was no “special relationship” and, therefore, no legal duty to protect spectators and participants from the storm.

Counsel: Argued by W. David Allen of Crofton, MD. for Appellants.

Argued BY Kristine A. Crosswhite (Crosswhite, McKenna, Limbrick & Sinclair, LLP of Baltimore, MD) on brief for Appellees.

Judges: Bell, C.J., Raker, Wilner, Cathell, Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, JJ.

Opinion by Harrell, J. Bell, C.J., joins in judgment only.

Opinion by: Harrell

Opinion:

[*630] [**567] Opinion by Harrell, J.

On 17 June 2000, Robert Carson Patton, II, and his father, Donald Lee Patton, while at an amateur rugby tournament in Annapolis, were struck by lightning. Robert, a player in the tournament, was seriously injured, but survived. Donald, a spectator watching his son play, died. Robert and various other members of the Patton family filed suit in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County alleging negligence against the rugby tournament organizers, referee, and related organizations with regard to the episode.

Defendants filed Motions to Dismiss arguing they owed no legal duty to Robert and Donald Patton. A hearing was held and, on 10 July 2003, the Circuit Court dismissed the action. The Patton family appealed. This Court, on its own initiative and before the appeal could be decided in the Court of Special Appeals, issued a writ of certiorari to determine whether any of the defendants, under the circumstances alleged in the complaint, owed a legal duty [***2] to Robert and Donald Patton. Patton v. USA Rugby, 379 Md. 224, 841 A.2d 339 (2004).

I.

A. The Lightning Strike

Based on Appellants’ amended complaint, we assume the [*631] truth of the following factual allegations: n1

[**568] Sometime during the early morning of 17 June 2000, Robert and Donald Patton arrived at playing fields adjacent to the Annapolis Middle School in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Robert was to play rugby for the Norfolk Blues Rugby Club. Donald intended to support his son as a spectator. Robert and Donald, along with other participants and spectators, placed their equipment and belongings under a row of trees adjacent to the playing fields.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

n1 See Valentine v. On Target, Inc., 353 Md. 544, 548, 727 A.2d 947, 949 (1999) (“as the result of the trial court’s granting a motion to dismiss, as opposed to the granting of summary judgment or judgment entered after trial, the Court will assume the truth of all well- pleaded facts and any reasonable inferences that can be properly drawn therefrom”) (citations omitted).

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – – [***3]

The rugby tournament was coordinated by Steven Quigg and was sanctioned by the United States of America Rugby Football Union, Ltd., d/b/a USA Rugby, and Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union, Inc. Rugby matches involving over two dozen teams began at approximately 9:00 a.m. and were planned to continue throughout the day. It was a warm, muggy day. The weather forecast for Annapolis was for possible thunderstorms. At some point prior to the start of the twenty minute match between the Norfolk Blues and the Washington Rugby Football Club (“the match”), a thunderstorm passed through the area surrounding the Annapolis Middle School. At the start of the match, rain commenced; lightning could be seen and thunder could be heard proximate to the lightning flashes. By this time, the National Weather Service had issued a thunderstorm “warning” for the Annapolis area.

Kevin Eager, a member of the Potomac Society of Rugby Football Referees, Inc., was the volunteer referee for the afternoon match in which Robert Patton was a participant. Under the direction of Eager, the match continued as the rain increased in intensity, the weather conditions deteriorated, and the lighting flashed directly overhead. [***4] Other matches at [*632] the tournament ended. Robert Patton continued to play the match through the rain and lightning and his father continued to observe as a spectator until the match was stopped just prior to its normal conclusion.

Upon the termination of the match, Robert and Donald fled the playing fields to the area under the trees where they left their possessions. As they began to make their exit from under the trees to seek the safety of their car, each was struck by lightning. Donald died. Robert Patton sustained personal injuries and was hospitalized, but recovered.

B. Circuit Court Proceedings

Appellants here and Plaintiffs below are Judith Edwards Patton (wife of Donald Patton), acting in both an individual capacity and as personal representative of the estate of Donald Patton; Sophia P. Patton and Robert C. Patton (the parents of Donald Patton); Robert Carson Patton, II; and Meredith Patton (Donald’s daughter). They sued the United States of America Rugby Football Union, Ltd., d/b/a USA Rugby (“USA Rugby”), the Mid- Atlantic Rugby Football Union, Inc. ( “MARFU”), the Potomac Rugby Union, Inc. (“PRU”), the Potomac Society of Rugby Football Referees, Inc. (“Referees’ Society”), [***5] Kevin Eager, n2 and Steven Quigg, alleging that Defendants were liable in tort for the death of Donald Patton and the injuries suffered by Robert Patton. This liability, Appellants contended, was due to Defendants’/Appellees’ failure to employ proper policies and procedures to protect players and spectators at the tournament from lightning strikes.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

n2 Kevin Eager never was served with process.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Appellants alleged that Appellees each had a duty to, but failed to, do one or more of the following acts:

“(a) Have and implement proper policies and procedures regarding the protection [**569] of players and spectators from adverse weather conditions and lightning; [*633]

“(b) Have and implement a policy regarding the safe evacuation of players and spectators from the fields of play at its matches when lightning is present;

“(c) Safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the players and spectators at its matches;

“(d) Terminate the rugby match and tournament when lightning is present;

“(e) Monitor and detect dangerous conditions [***6] associated with its matches; and

“(f) Train, supervise, monitor and control actions of officials prior to ensure the safety of the participants and spectators from dangerous lightning strikes.”

On 26 August 2002, the Referees’ Society filed a Motion to Dismiss all claims pending against it on the ground that the Referees’ Society owed no tort duty to Robert or Donald Patton as a matter of law. Thereafter, on 16 September 2002, USA Rugby, MARFU, and Steven Quigg filed a joint Motion to Dismiss in which they adopted the arguments of the Referees’ Society and advanced the additional argument that Maryland’s Recreational Land Use Statute, found in Maryland Code (1974, 2000 Repl. Vol., 2003 Supp.), § 5-1101, et seq. of the Natural Resources Article, conferred tort immunity on them for injuries arising from recreational use of premises, i.e., playing rugby on the Annapolis Middle School fields. n3

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

n3 PRU was not served with process at the time that USA Rugby, MARFU, and Mr. Quigg filed their Motion to Dismiss and, consequently, PRU was not included in that motion as a moving party. PRU timely filed an Answer to Appellants’ original Complaint on 15 October 2002, and thereafter, was included as a moving party on all pending defense motions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – – [***7]

Appellants, on 30 December 2002, filed an amended complaint. On 9 January 2003, USA Rugby, MARFU, PRU, and Mr. Quigg filed a second Motion to Dismiss, or in the alternative, for Summary Judgment. The Motion to Dismiss argued that: (1) Appellees owed the Pattons no legally cognizable tort duty as a matter of law; (2) Appellees are immune from tort liability under Maryland’s Recreational Land Use Statute; [*634] and (3) the claims of Robert were barred by waiver. On 13 January 2002, the Referees’ Society also filed a Motion to Dismiss the amended complaint.

The pending motions were heard on 5 February 2003. The Circuit Court, subsequently, issued an order granting the pending motions to dismiss and, on 17 November 2003, issued a Memorandum Opinion explaining the reasons for the dismissal.

Based on Maryland precedents and caselaw from other jurisdictions, the Circuit Court concluded that Appellees did not owe a duty of care to Robert or Donald Patton. The Circuit Court noted generally that courts in other jurisdictions have found that “landowners” or their equivalent do not have a duty to warn invitees of the risk of lightning. As regards Donald Patton, the Circuit Court stated:

“Decedent [***8] Donald Patton was a nonpaying spectator at a rugby match organized and overseen by [Appellees]. There is no indication from the record that Decedent had entrusted himself to the control and protection of [Appellees], indeed he was free to leave the tournament at any time. Additionally, there is no indication that he had lost the ability to monitor changing weather conditions and act accordingly. While [Appellants] allege the storm began near the beginning of the match, it was not until the conclusion of the game, that Decedent and plaintiff Robert Patton, attempted to escape the storm by running towards [**570] the tree line adjacent to the open field to retrieve their belongings. It was here that both were struck by lightning.

“The inherently unpredictable nature of weather and the patent dangerousness of lightning make it unreasonable to impose a duty upon [Appellees] to protect spectators from the type [of] injury that occurred here.”

As regards Robert Patton, the Circuit Court stated that “while it is arguable that [Appellees] had a greater duty to protect plaintiff Robert Patton, a player/participant from injury, they were under no duty to protect and warn him of [***9] lightening strikes and other acts of nature.” The hearing [*635] judge relied on cases from other jurisdictions involving lightning strikes on golf courses to conclude that “lightning is a universally known danger created by the elements” and, in the absence of evidence that Appellants created a greater hazard than brought about by natural causes, there is no duty to warn and protect. The Circuit Court expressly rejected as grounds for its grant of Appellees’ motions to dismiss both Maryland’s Recreational Land Use Statute, and waiver argument based on language contained in Robert Patton’s alleged execution of a USA Rugby Participant Enrollment Form. This appeal follows, therefore, from a dismissal of the amended complaint based solely on the ground that there was no legal duty owed to Robert or Donald Patton. Appellants present the following question for our consideration:

Did the trial court err, when it found that Appellees had no duty to protect Appellants from lightning injuries and granted Appellees’ motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted?

II.

Maryland Rule 2-322(b)(2) provides for the filing of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a [***10] claim upon which relief can be granted. We have stated that:

The granting of a motion to dismiss is proper when, even if the facts and allegations as set forth in the complaint were proven to be true, the complaint would nevertheless fail to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. . . . It will be affirmed if the record reveals any legally sound reason for the decision.

Valentine v. On Target, Inc., 353 Md. 544, 548-49, 727 A.2d 947, 949 (1999) (citations omitted).

III.

A.

For a plaintiff to state a prima facie claim in negligence, he or she must prove the existence of four elements by [*636] alleging facts demonstrating

“(1) that the defendant was under a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury, (2) that the defendant breached that duty, (3) that the plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss, and (4) that the loss or injury proximately resulted from the defendant’s breach of the duty.” Remsburg v. Montgomery, 376 Md. 568, 582, 831 A.2d 18, 26 (2003) (quoting Muthukumarana v. Montgomery Co., 370 Md. 447, 486, 805 A.2d 372, 395 (2002), and cases cited therein). Generally, whether there is adequate proof of the required [***11] elements to succeed in a negligence action is a question of fact to be determined by the fact-finder. The existence of a legal duty, however, is a question of law to be decided by the court. Valentine, 353 Md. at 549, 727 A.2d at 949. As established in Maryland jurisprudence over a century ago: there can be no negligence where there is no duty that is due; for negligence is the breach of some duty that one person [**571] owes to another. It is consequently relative and can have no existence apart from some duty expressly or impliedly imposed. In every instance before negligence can be predicated of a given act, back of the act must be sought and found a duty to the individual complaining, the observance of which duty would have averted or avoided the injury. . . . As the duty owed varies with circumstances and with the relation to each other of the individuals concerned, so the alleged negligence varies, and the act complained of never amounts to negligence in law or in fact; if there has been no breach of duty. Bobo v. State, 346 Md. 706, 714, 697 A.2d 1371, 1375 (1997) (quoting West Virginia Cent. & P.R. v. State ex rel. Fuller, 96 Md. 652, 666, 54 A. 669, 671-72 (1903)). [***12] “Our analysis of a negligence cause of action usually begins with the question of whether a legally cognizable duty existed.” Remsburg , 376 Md. at 582, 831 A.2d at 26.

When assessing whether a tort duty may exist, we often have recourse to the definition in W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on The Law of Torts § 53 (5th ed. 1984), which characterizes “duty” as “an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular [*637] standard of conduct toward another.” Id. In determining the existence of a duty, we consider, among other things: the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered the injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach, and the availability, cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.

Ashburn v. Anne Arundel County, 306 Md. 617, 627, 510 A.2d 1078, 1083 (1986) [***13] (citation omitted). Where the failure to exercise due care creates risks of personal injury, “the principal determinant of duty becomes foreseeability.” Jacques v. First Nat’l Bank of Maryland, 307 Md. 527, 535, 515 A.2d 756, 760 (1986) (citations omitted). The foreseeability test “is simply intended to reflect current societal standards with respect to an acceptable nexus between the negligent act and the ensuing harm.” Dobbins v. Washington Suburban Sanitary Comm’n, 338 Md. 341, 348, 658 A.2d 675, 678 (1995) (quoting Henley v. Prince George’s County, 305 Md. 320, 333, 503 A.2d 1333, 1340 (1986)).

In determining whether a duty exists, “it is important to consider the policy reasons supporting a cause of action in negligence. The purpose is to discourage or encourage specific types of behavior by one party to the benefit of another party.” Valentine, 353 Md. at 550, 727 A.2d at 950. “While foreseeability is often considered among the most important of these factors, its existence alone does not suffice to establish a duty under Maryland law.” Remsburg, 376 Md. at 583, 831 A.2d at 26. As we clarified [***14] in Ashburn: the fact that a result may be foreseeable does not itself impose a duty in negligence terms. This principle is apparent in the acceptance by most jurisdictions and by this Court of the general rule that there is no duty to control a third person’s conduct so as to prevent personal harm to another, unless a “special relationship” exists either between [*638] the actor and the third person or between the actor and the person injured. Ashburn, 306 Md. at 628, 510 A.2d at 1083 (citations omitted). In addition, “a tort [**572] duty does not always coexist with a moral duty.” Jacques, 307 Md. at 534, 515 A.2d at 759 (citing W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on The Law of Torts § 56 (5th ed. 1984)). We have held that such a “special duty” to protect another may be established “(1) by statute or rule; (2) by contractural or other private relationship; or (3) indirectly or impliedly by virtue of the relationship between the tortfeasor and a third party.” Bobo, 346 Md. at 715, 697 A.2d at 1376 (internal citations omitted).

B.

Appellants allege that a “special relationship” existed between Appellees (USA Rugby, MARFU, [***15] PRU, the Referees’ Society, and Steven Quigg) and Robert and Donald Patton sufficient to recognize the existence of a duty to protect the latter, the breach of which gave rise to an action for negligence.

Appellants argue that:

A participant in a sporting event, by the very nature of the sport, trusts that his personal welfare will be protected by those controlling the event. Stated another way, it is reasonably foreseeable that both the player, and the player’s father, will continue to participate in the match, as []long as the match is not stopped by the governing bodies in charge. It also is reasonably foreseeable that, when matches are played in thunderstorms, there is a substantial risk of injury from lightning. And finally, it is reasonably foreseeable that a father will not abandon his son, when he sees those who have assumed responsibility for his son’s welfare placing his son in a perilous condition . . . .

Appellants essentially contend that the tournament organizers had a duty to protect Robert and Donald, and to extricate them, from the dangers of playing in and viewing, respectively, a sanctioned rugby match during a thunderstorm. [*639] Appellees counter that [***16] “there is no ‘special relationship’ between Mr. Patton, Sr., Mr. Patton and the Appellees which would require the Appellees to protect and warn these individuals of the dangers associated with lightning.” Appellees argue that they “had no ability to control the activities of players or spectators at any time,” and “there is no evidence in the record that Mr. Patton, Sr. and Mr. Patton were dependent upon or relied upon the Appellees in any way, shape or form.”

We said in Remsburg that “the creation of a ‘special duty’ by virtue of a ‘special relationship’ between the parties can be established by either (1) the inherent nature of the relationship between the parties; or (2) by one party undertaking to protect or assist the other party, and thus often inducing reliance upon the conduct of the acting party.” Remsburg, 376 Md. at 589-90, 831 A.2d at 30. We conclude that Appellants here did not establish by either of these methods a triable issue as to the existence of a “special relationship.” Id.

In Remsburg, among other issues, we focused on whether a “special relationship” was created because of an implied or indirect relationship between the parties. [***17] Id. We held that the leader of a hunting party was under no special duty to protect a property owner who was shot by a member of the leader’s hunting party. We found insufficient the relationship of dependence between the leader of the hunting party and the injured property owner. This meant there was no duty on the part of the leader to protect the property owner from being accidentally shot by a hunting party member. 376 Md. at 593, 831 A.2d at 33. In holding that the inherent nature of the relationship between the parties did not give rise to a “special relationship” and, hence, a tort duty, we again approved [**573] the traditional “special relationships” that consistently have been associated with the “special relationship” doctrine. 376 Md. at 593-94, 831 A.2d at 32-33. We adopted previously as Maryland common law § 314A of the Restatement, entitled “Special Relations Giving Rise to a Duty to Aid or Protect,” which provides that:

[*640] (1) [a] common carrier is under a duty to its passengers to take reasonable action

(a) to protect them against unreasonable risk of physical harm . . . .

(2) An innkeeper is under a similar duty to his guests.

(3) [***18] A possessor of land who holds it open to the public is under a similar duty to members of the public who enter in response to his invitation.

(4) One who is required by law to take or who voluntarily takes the custody of another under circumstance such as to deprive the other of his normal opportunities for protection is under a similar duty to the other.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A (1965); see Southland Corp. v. Griffith, 332 Md. 704, 719, 633 A.2d 84, 91 (1993). Although the foregoing list is not exhaustive, our caselaw where we have found a duty arises consistently requires an element of dependence that is lacking in the present case. See, e.g., Todd v. Mass Transit Admin., 373 Md. 149, 165, 816 A.2d 930, 939 (2003) (finding that an employee of a common carrier has a legal duty to take affirmative action for the aid or protection of a passenger under attack by another passenger); Southland, 332 Md. at 720, 633 A.2d at 91 (finding that a convenience store, through its employee and by virtue of a special relationship between the business and its customers, owed a legal duty to a customer being [***19] assaulted in store parking lot to call the police for assistance when requested to do so).

As stated in Remsburg, “while we have permitted some flexibility in defining this limited exception, such as including the employer-to-employee relationship and also that of business owner-to-patron, we have been careful not to expand this class of ‘special relationships’ in such a manner as to impose broad liability for every group outing.” Remsburg, 376 Md. at 594, 831 A.2d at 33. Similarly, in Muthukumarana v. Montgomery County, 370 Md. 447, 805 A.2d 372 (2002), we declined to recognize that a “special relationship” existed between two child victims of the sequelae of a domestic dispute and an emergency telephone operator. In Muthukumarana, the operator, [*641] a police services aide, received a frantic call from Ms. Muthukumarana reporting that her husband had assaulted her in their house and then run upstairs. 370 Md. at 468-70, 805 A.2d at 384-86. The police services aide talked with Ms. Muthukumarana on the phone for one minute and forty seconds until the husband returned downstairs and shot and killed the two children huddled at her side [***20] and then himself. Id. Ms. Muthukumarana sued the police services aide and her supervisors alleging that they had a tort duty of care to the decedent children and herself and that that duty was breached by, among other things, a failure to timely advise her to leave the premises. Id.

In Fried v. Archer, the companion case to Muthukumarana, we also declined to find that a “special relationship” existed between a woman who died of hypothermia due to exposure to the elements and an emergency telephone system operator who erroneously reported the location of the woman to police officers on patrol who therefore failed to discover the victim before her demise. In Fried, a communications officer employed by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous [**574] call n4 reporting a female laying semi- conscious in the woods behind a particular building. 370 Md. at 458, 805 A.2d at 379. The communications officer, however, provided police officers with the wrong location of the woman. 370 Md. at 460, 805 A.2d at 379. The responding officers were unable to locate the victim, who died of hypothermia. 370 Md. at 460, 805 A.2d at 380. [***21] The decedent’s mother sued the communications officer and her supervisors alleging that they had a tort duty of care to the decedent and that that duty was breached by the failure to provide the police officers with the decedent’s correct location. 370 Md. at 461, 805 A.2d at 380.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

n4 The call, it turned out, was placed by one of the young men who caused the young woman to become unconscious and placed her in the vulnerable location outdoors on a cold, rainy night.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

We applied the “special relationship” doctrine to the circumstances surrounding the emergency telephone operators in both cases and held that no “special relationship” existed [*642] between them and the plaintiffs. 370 Md. at 486, 805 A.2d at 395. We reasoned that for a “special relationship” to exist between an emergency telephone operator and a person in need of assistance, it must be shown that the telephone operator affirmatively acted to protect the decedent or a specific group of individuals like the decedent, thereby inducing [***22] specific reliance by an individual on the telephone operator’s conduct. 370 Md. at 496, 805 A.2d at 401.

The element of dependence and ceding of self-control by the injured party that is needed under Remsberg and Muthukumarana/Fried is absent in the present case. n5 There is no credible evidence that the two adults, Robert and Donald Patton, entrusted themselves to the control and protection of Appellees.

Accordingly, we follow our admonition in Remsburg to avoid expanding the “special relationship” exception in such a manner as to impose broad liability for every group activity. Remsburg, 376 Md. at 594, 831 A.2d at 33. Our decision here, in line with Remsberg and Muthukumarana/Fried, is consistent with our view of narrowly construing the “special relationship” exception.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

n5 There may be a degree of dependency and ceding of control that could trigger a “special relationship” in, for example, a Little League game where children playing in the game are reliant on the adults supervising them.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – – [***23]

Of the relevant cases from our sister states, we find Dykema v. Gus Macker Enters., Inc., 196 Mich. App. 6, 492 N.W.2d 472 (Mich. Ct. App. 1992) to be particularly persuasive in the present case. In Dykema, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that the sponsors of an outdoor basketball tournament had no duty to warn a tournament spectator of an approaching thunderstorm that ultimately caused his injury. Dykema, 492 N.W.2d at 474-75. A thunderstorm struck the area of the tournament. The plaintiff, while running for shelter, was struck by a falling tree limb and paralyzed. Dykema, 492 N.W.2d at 473.

Like Maryland, Michigan recognizes the general rule that there is no tort duty to aid or protect another in the absence [*643] of a generally recognized “special relationship.” Dykema, 492 N.W.2d at 474. The Michigan court stated that:

The rationale behind imposing a legal duty to act in these special relationships is based on the element of control. In a special relationship, one person entrusts himself to the control and protection of another, with a consequent loss of control to protect himself. The duty to protect is [***24] imposed upon the person in control because he is in the best position to provide a place of safety. Thus, the determination whether a duty-imposing special relationship exists in a particular [**575] case involves the determination whether the plaintiff entrusted himself to the control and protection of the defendant, with a consequent loss of control to protect himself.

Id. (citations omitted). Like the situation of the plaintiff and tournament sponsors in Dykema, Appellants here cannot be said to have entrusted themselves to the control and protection of the rugby tournament organizers. Id. ( “Plaintiff was free to leave the tournament at anytime, and his movements were not restricted by Defendant.”). We do not agree that, as Appellants argue, “the participants in the tournament, in effect, cede control over their activities to those who are putting on the event.” Robert and Donald Patton were free to leave the voluntary, amateur tournament at any time and their ability to do so was not restricted in any meaningful way by the tournament organizers. An adult amateur sporting event is a voluntary affair, and the participants are capable of leaving the playing field on their [***25] own volition if they feel their lives or health are in jeopardy. The changing weather conditions in the present case presumably were observable to all competent adults. Robert and Donald Patton could have sought shelter at any time they deemed it appropriate to do so. n6

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

n6 The Dykema court continued its reasoning by assuming that, “even if [Dykema] had succeeded in establishing that a special relationship existed . . . we are unable to find precedent for imposing a duty upon an organizer of an outdoor event such as this basketball tournament to warn a spectator of approaching severe weather.” Dykema, 492 N.W.2d at 475. Citing Hames v. State, 808 S.W.2d 41, 45 (Tenn. 1991), the Michigan Court of Appeals alternatively held that, because the “approach of a thunderstorm is readily apparent to reasonably prudent people . . . it would be unreasonable to impose a duty . . . to warn . . . of a condition that the spectator is fully able to observe and react to on his own.” Id.

There is a line of cases, not dependent on analysis of whether a special relationship existed, that rely on the ability of competent adults to perceive the approach of thunderstorms and to appreciate the natural risks of lightning associated with thunderstorms to justify finding no breach of an ordinary duty of care owed to a plaintiff, whether that duty is recognized by common law, undertaken by the conduct of a defendant, or implied from the conduct of a defendant. For example, in Hames, the Supreme Court of Tennessee held that the State’s failure to provide lightning proof shelters and lightning warning devices at a State-owned golf course was not actionable in negligence. Hames, 808 S.W.2d at 45. Like Robert and Donald Patton, the golfer in Hames began to play his sport of choice on an overcast day. On the day that the golfer was struck by lightning, no signs were posted informing patrons what to do in the event of a thunderstorm and no effort was made to clear the golf course by course employees. Hames, 808 S.W.2d at 42. Approximately 25 minutes after the golfer began to play golf, a thunderstorm moved through the area. He was struck and killed by lightning while seeking cover on a small hill underneath some trees.

The plaintiff in Hames argued that the U.S. Golf Association’s Rules and Regulations created a golf course standard of care that required posting of lightning warnings and precautions. Hames, 808 S.W.2d at 43. The plaintiff’s argument in Hames is analogous to Appellants’ argument in the present case, i.e., the National Collegiate Athletic Association guidelines constitute a lightning safety standard of care for outdoor sporting events.

As well as finding no proximate cause, the Tennessee Court found that the “risks and dangers associated with playing golf in a lightning storm are rather obvious to most adults.” Hames, 808 S.W.2d at 45. The Court noted that it would have taken the decedent golfer two minutes to reach the relative safety of the clubhouse, but instead he remained on the golf course. Id. The Court concluded that “it is reasonable to infer that a reasonably prudent adult can recognize the approach of a severe thunderstorm and know that it is time to pack up the clubs and leave before the storm begins to wreak havoc.” Id. Accordingly, even though the State, as owner-operator of the golf course, owed Hames a general duty “to exercise reasonable care under all the attendant circumstances to make the premises safe . . . the defendant’s conduct did not fall below the applicable standard of care.” Hames, 808 S.W.2d at 44-46.

In Caldwell v. Let the Good Times Roll Festival, 717 So. 2d 1263, 1274 (La. Ct. App. 1998), the Louisiana Court of Appeals held that the City of Shreveport and two co-sponsors of an outdoor festival had neither a general nor specific duty to warn spectators of an approaching severe thunderstorm that caused injuries due to its high winds. The court in Caldwell observed that:

Most animals, especially we who are in the higher order, do not have to be told or warned about the vagaries of the weather, that wind and clouds may produce a rainstorm; that a rainstorm and wind and rain may suddenly escalate to become more severe and dangerous to lives and property. A thundershower may suddenly become a thunderstorm with destructive wind and lightning. A thunderstorm in progress may escalate to produce either or both tornadoes and hail, or even a rare and unexpected micro burst . . . all of which are extremely destructive to persons and property. Caldwell, 717 So. 2d at 1271. See also Seelbinder v. County of Volusia, 821 So. 2d 1095, 1097 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2002) (“We begin by joining the almost universally agreed view that the County, in its capacity as “landowner” or the equivalent, did not have a duty to warn invitees, including beachgoers that there was a risk of being struck by lightning.”) (citations omitted); Grace v. City of Oklahoma City, 1997 OK CIV APP 90, 953 P.2d 69, 71 (Okla. Civ. Ct. App. 1997) (“Lightning is a universally known danger created by the elements. [The golf course owner] has no duty to warn its invitees of the patent danger of lightning or to reconstruct or alter its premises to protect against lightning[,]” and “all persons on the property are expected to assume the burden of protecting themselves from them.”); McAuliffe v. Town of New Windsor, 178 A.D.2d 905, 906, 577 N.Y.S.2d 942 (N.Y. App. Div. 1991) (upon the commencement of rain and thunder, the danger of lightning was admittedly apparent to plaintiff and there is no special duty to warn a specific swimmer against a condition that is readily observable by the reasonable use of one’s senses). The reasoning in the foregoing cases, although not explicated in terms of special relationship analysis as such, is consistent with the result reached in the present case.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – – [***26]

[*645] [**576] JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY AFFIRMED. COSTS TO BE PAID BY APPELLANTS.

Chief Judge Bell joins in the judgment only.


Smith v. Kroesen, 9 F. Supp. 3d 439; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39729

Smith v. Kroesen, 9 F. Supp. 3d 439; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39729

Paul M., Plaintiff, v. John A. and Mark Cooley, et al., Defendants.

Civ. A. No. 10-5723 (NLH)(AMD)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

9 F. Supp. 3d 439; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39729

March 25, 2014, Decided

March 25, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Smith v. Kroesen, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167619 (D.N.J., Nov. 26, 2013)

COUNSEL: [**1] DOMINIC ROMAN DEPAMPHILIS, D’AMATO LAW FIRM PC, EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, NJ, On behalf of plaintiff.

CLARK B. LEUTZE, MARGOLIS EDELSTEIN, MOUNT LAUREL, NJ, On behalf of defendant Mark Cooley.

JUDGES: Noel L. Hillman, U.S.D.J.

OPINION BY: Noel L. Hillman

OPINION

[*440] HILLMAN, District Judge

Presently before the Court is the motion of defendant, Mark Cooley, for summary judgment in his favor on the claims of plaintiff, Paul Smith, that defendant is liable for injuries plaintiff sustained while playing in a rugby match. For the reasons expressed below, defendant’s motion will be granted.

BACKGROUND

On April 10, 2010, plaintiff Paul Smith, a member of the Jersey Shore Sharks rugby team, was playing in a rugby match against Old Gaelic Rugby Football Club, which was coached by defendant Mark Cooley. A rugby match is comprised of two, 40-minute halves, and it is typical to have 70 pile-ups of players and over 100 collisions with other players. During the first half of the match that day, plaintiff and a player from Old Gaelic got into a “ruck,” which is described to the Court as an on-the-field argument.1 The two players rolled on the ground, and plaintiff gave the Old Gaelic player a short jab to the ribs. Although the play had moved [**2] to the other end of the field, another Old Gaelic player, defendant John Kroesen, saw the ruck and, according to plaintiff, came from behind and intentionally kicked him in the face. Plaintiff sustained a left orbital fracture and a nasal fracture, for which plaintiff underwent surgery.

1 In rugby, a “ruck” also refers to efforts by opposing teams huddled over a dropped ball to kick it to a teammate to gain possession.

Plaintiff filed suit against Kroesen claiming that Kroesen’s conduct was intentional assault and battery, or at a minimum, grossly negligent. Plaintiff then filed an amended complaint,2 adding Cooley as a defendant, claiming that Cooley was grossly negligent in his coaching of the Old Gaelic team, and is responsible for plaintiff’s injuries caused by Kroesen.3 Kroesen did not answer plaintiff’s complaint, and the clerk has entered default against him. Plaintiff and Cooley went to arbitration to resolve plaintiff’s claims against Cooley, but following the arbitrator’s decision, plaintiff sought a trial de novo. Cooley has now filed for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims against him. Plaintiff has opposed Cooley’s motion.

2 The Court granted plaintiff’s unopposed motion [**3] to file an amended complaint. (See Docket No. 8, Nov. 11, 2011.)

3 Plaintiff also added as defendants the Old Gaelic Rugby Football Club, the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union (“EPRU”), and the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union (“MARFU”), which oversees EPRU. On October 31, 2012, plaintiff dismissed by consent his claims against MARFU. Old Gaelic and EPRU were never served with the amended complaint, and plaintiff has abandoned his claims against them. (Pl. Attorney Cert. ¶ 9, Docket No. 38-1.)

DISCUSSION

A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

This Court may exercise subject matter jurisdiction over the action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because there is complete diversity of citizenship between the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.4 The citizenship of the [*441] parties is as follows: plaintiff is a citizen of New Jersey; defendant Kroesen is a citizen of Pennsylvania; defendant Mark Cooley is a citizen of Pennsylvania; defendant Old Gaelic Rugby Football Club, Inc. is a corporation incorporated in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with its principal place of business at 712 Bower Road, Shermans Dale, Pennsylvania; defendant Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union, Inc. (“EPRU”) is a corporation [**4] incorporated in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with its principal place of business at 2107 Fidelity Building, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103; and Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union, Inc. is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business at 800 King Street, Wilmington, Delaware.

4 On November 26, 2013, the Court issued an Order to Show Cause directing plaintiff to provide a certification properly stating the citizenship of the parties before the case could proceed, as the citizenship of the parties was not properly pleaded in the original or amended complaints. (See Docket No. 36.) Plaintiff complied with the Court’s Order, and the citizenship of the parties has now been properly averred. (See Pl. Attorney Cert., Docket No. 38-1.)

B. Standard for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that the materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, or interrogatory answers, demonstrate that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986); [**5] Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

An issue is “genuine” if it is supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party’s favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A fact is “material” if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party’s evidence “is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Marino v. Industrial Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).

Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that [**6] contradict those offered by the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57. A party opposing summary judgment must do more than just rest upon mere allegations, general denials, or vague statements. Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232, 43 V.I. 361 (3d Cir. 2001).

C. Analysis

Cooley has moved for summary judgment in his favor on several bases. One basis is that he is immune from liability for plaintiff’s injuries under N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6 and 42 U.S.C. § 14501 et seq., both of which afford immunity to volunteer athletic coaches for damages incurred by a player during an organized sports competition. Cooley also argues that plaintiff’s claims against him are barred by plaintiff’s assumption of the risk of injury in the very physical game of rugby, as well as by the annual rugby participation agreement, which includes a provision that by agreeing to play in the league, plaintiff releases all other members and coaches from liability for any damages suffered by plaintiff [*442] through his participation in the league. In addition to these outright bars to plaintiff’s claims against Cooley, Cooley also argues that no facts demonstrate that Cooley was negligent in his coaching duties rendering him liable for [**7] plaintiff’s injuries.

Plaintiff has opposed Cooley’s motion as to the application of N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6 and 42 U.S.C. § 14501 et seq., his assumption of risk, and the release from liability in the participation agreement. With regard to the volunteer immunity statutes, plaintiff argues that N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6 does not apply to Cooley because he never completed a safety orientation and training skills program as required by N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6(c)(2),5 and because Cooley was “grossly negligent,” which conduct is excluded from immunity by N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6(c)(1). Plaintiff also argues that Cooley cannot avail himself of 42 U.S.C. § 14501 at this point because he failed to plead it as an affirmative defense in his answer to plaintiff’s complaint, and because plaintiff was grossly negligent, which is also exempted from immunity under the federal volunteer immunity act.

5 Cooley represents that in order to serve as a coach for Old Gaelic he completed nationwide USA Rugby training, which included “injury prevention and first aid procedures and general coaching concepts,” as required by N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6(c)(2). Plaintiff contends, however, that in order to satisfy N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6(c)(2), plaintiff [**8] was required to take a safety orientation program specifically provided in New Jersey. As set forth below, we need not resolve this issue.

Plaintiff further rejects Cooley’s arguments that because he assumed the risk of being injured by knowingly playing in a contact sport, and because he signed a release from liability for damages resulting from participating in the contact sport, Cooley cannot be held liable for plaintiff’s damages. Plaintiff contends that because Cooley was grossly negligent in his coaching of Old Gaelic, plaintiff did not assume the risk of injury that was beyond the bounds of typical rugby play–namely, Kroesen’s kick to plaintiff’s face that resulted from Cooley’s poor coaching of Kroesen. Plaintiff also contends that the participation agreement releases do not apply to Cooley’s gross negligence.

Even accepting all of plaintiff’s arguments – that the volunteer immunity statutes do not apply, that he did not assume the risk of the injuries he suffered, and that the participation agreements do not bar his claims – plaintiff has failed to establish sufficient facts from which a jury could conclude that Cooley was grossly negligent in his coaching duties.

Under New Jersey [**9] law, in order to prove that a person acted negligently, the plaintiff must establish: (1) a duty of care owed to the plaintiff by the defendant; (2) that defendant breached that duty of care; and (3) that plaintiff’s injury was proximately caused by defendant’s breach. Boos v. Nichtberger, 2013 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2455, 2013 WL 5566694, *4 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Oct. 10, 2013) (citing Endre v. Arnold, 300 N.J. Super. 136, 142, 692 A.2d 97 (App. Div. 1997)). The burden of proving a negligence claim rests with the plaintiff, and as part of that burden, it is vital that plaintiff establish that his injury was proximately caused by the unreasonable acts or omissions of the defendant. Id. (citing Camp v. Jiffy Lube No. 114, 309 N.J. Super. 305, 309-11, 706 A.2d 1193 (App. Div.), cert. denied, 156 N.J. 386, 718 A.2d 1215 (1998)) (other citation omitted).

With regard to a claim of gross negligence, “the difference between ‘gross’ and ‘ordinary’ negligence is one of degree rather than of quality.” Fernicola v. Pheasant Run at Barnegat, 2010 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1614, 2010 WL 2794074, *2 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2010) (quoting Oliver v. Kantor, 122 N.J.L. 528, 532, [*443] 6 A.2d 205 (Sup. Ct. 1939), aff’d o.b., 124 N.J.L. 131, 10 A.2d 732 (E. & A. 1940)). “Gross negligence refers to behavior which constitutes indifference to [**10] consequences.” Griffin v. Bayshore Medical Center, 2011 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1165, 2011 WL 2349423, *5 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2011) (citing Banks v. Korman Assocs., 218 N.J. Super. 370, 373, 527 A.2d 933 (App. Div. 1987)).

Cooley argues that plaintiff cannot provide any facts to establish that he caused Kroesen to kick plaintiff in the face during a rugby match. Cooley argues that there is no evidence to support that Cooley knew that Kroesen was prone to violence beyond what is typical during a rugby match, which is supported by the fact that Kroesen had never previously received a yellow card (for a small infraction resulting in a period of time out from a game) or a red card (for a serious infraction resulting in discharge from the game).6 Moreover, Cooley argues that plaintiff has not provided any evidence to suggest that Cooley failed in his duty as a coach by affirmatively encouraging Kroesen or any of his players to act violently during a rugby match, or by failing to appreciate a player’s violent tendencies.7

6 Plaintiff does not dispute that he had received three yellow cards in the past.

7 Cooley also counters plaintiff’s allegations that Kroesen intentionally kicked plaintiff in the face, because it is not clear whether [**11] Kroesen, who, according to Cooley and other players, was attempting to save his teammate from being punched by plaintiff, slipped while entering the fray. The dispute over the nature of Kroesen’s and plaintiff’s actions during the altercation is not material to the resolution of plaintiff’s claims against Cooley, however, because to decide Cooley’s motion for summary judgment, it must be accepted as true that Kroesen intentionally kicked plaintiff in the face.

In the context of arguing that Cooley is not entitled to immunity under N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6(c)(1) because he was grossly negligent in his coaching duties, plaintiff argues that his negligence claim against Cooley is supported by his liability expert, Dr. Leonard K. Lucenko, who is qualified in federal and state courts as an expert in the field of physical education, recreation, coaching, and sports risk management and safety. According to Dr. Lucenko, Cooley deviated from reasonable coaching standards as follows:

1. The failure to exercise due care and foresight even though it was foreseeable that noncompliance with the Laws of the Game of Rugby created the environment for serious and permanent injury.

2. The failure to understand [**12] and appreciate well known coaching risk management principles, such as the nine legal duties of a coach.

3. The failure to properly teach and enforce the Laws of the Game of Rugby.

4. The failure to recognize the dangerous conditions created by the failure to comply with the Laws of the Game of Rugby.

5. The failure to instruct and train the players on what actions to take regarding fighting.

6. The failure to closely monitor and supervise Mr. Kroesen given his intensity as a player.

7. The failure to effectively and adequately address the intense play of Mr. Kroesen, which was resulting in injuries to other players.

8. The failure on the part of Mr. Cooley to understand he was bound by the USA Rugby Coaches’ Code of Conduct.

9. The failure to adopt and follow the principles outlined in the Code of Conduct.

(Pl. Opp. at 13, citing Ex. A.) Plaintiff argues that Dr. Lucenko’s conclusions [*444] present material disputed evidence as to whether Cooley was grossly negligent in his coaching duties, and therefore his claim against Cooley should be sent to a jury to decide.

Gross negligence requires substantial proof beyond simple negligence; it requires wanton or reckless disregard for the safety of others. [**13] Griffin v. Bayshore Medical Center, 2011 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1165, 2011 WL 2349423, *5 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2011) (citing In re Kerlin, 151 N.J. Super. 179, 185, 376 A.2d 939 (App. Div.1977)). Setting aside any expert qualification issues under Daubert,8 and accepting as true all of Dr. Lucenko’s findings that Cooley failed to properly instruct his players with regard to the propriety of fighting during a rugby match, the Court cannot find that plaintiff has provided sufficient disputed facts to send to a jury on the issue of proximate causation. None of Dr. Lucenko’s conclusions, nor any of the other evidence in the record, demonstrate that Cooley acted indifferently, willfully, or wantonly in his coaching of Kroesen such that he should be held legally responsible for the injuries plaintiff sustained when Kroesen kicked plaintiff in the face.

8 Federal Rule of Evidence 702, as amended in 2000 to incorporate the standards set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1993), imposes an obligation upon a district court to ensure that expert testimony is not only relevant, but reliable. As the Third Circuit has made clear, “the reliability analysis [required by Daubert] applies to all aspects of an [**14] expert’s testimony: the methodology, the facts underlying the expert’s opinion, [and] the link between the facts and the conclusion.” ZF Meritor, LLC v. Eaton Corp., 696 F.3d 254, 291 (3d Cir. 2012) (citations omitted). To be admissible, expert testimony must concern subject matter beyond the average juror’s understanding, be sufficiently reliable, and be offered by a sufficiently qualified expert. DeHanes v. Rothman, 158 N.J. 90, 727 A.2d 8 (N.J. 1999).

As noted by the New Jersey courts, the question of the scope of duty among coaches and players is intertwined with considerations of public policy. Egerter v. Amato, 2006 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3008, 2006 WL 551571, *3 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 2006) (citing Hopkins v. Fox and Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 625 A.2d 1110 (N.J. 1993)). The “strong social policy to facilitate free and aggressive participation in athletic activity requires . . . leeway at least where no specific rule or statute has been violated. Otherwise courts and juries will become de facto athletic directors, second guessing actor’s conduct in reviewing generalized claims of negligence.” Id. (citations omitted). “The fact is that any athletic endeavor involves some degree of risk. Coaches are expected to absorb such risks, just like [**15] participants in informal games or athletes on a scholastic gridiron. . . . [J]udges are not athletic directors. They should not formulate standards of care which require them and juries to function as if they were.” Id. (citation omitted).9

9 It is interesting to note that Dr. Lucenko served as plaintiff’s expert in Egerter, where a track coach sued her 8th grade student for injuries she sustained when the student hit her with a shot put. Dr. Lucenko concluded in that case that plaintiff organized, supervised and conducted the practice session in an appropriate and professional manner, but that it was the instantaneous and negligent decision by the student to throw the shot before given the instruction to do so that led to the plaintiff’s severe and life altering injuries. Egerter v. Amato, 2006 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3008, 2006 WL 551571, *1 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 2006). On defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the court found that the recklessness standard of negligence applied, and there was no evidence that the student acted recklessly.

In an earlier case proceeding under the same school of thought, and one that is similar to plaintiff’s case here against Cooley, a student in one high school filed suit [*445] against a [**16] soccer coach from another high school for injuries he sustained when an opposing player “undercut” him. Nydegger v. Don Bosco Preparatory High School, 202 N.J. Super. 535, 495 A.2d 485, 485 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1985). The student’s allegations against the opposing team’s coach were that he taught his players to compete in an “aggressive and intense manner” and that winning the game is all important. In resolving the coach’s motion to dismiss, the court concluded, “[I]n the absence of an instruction by a coach to one of his players to commit a wrongful act or his instructing one in moves or procedures that would increase the risk of harm to opposing players, a coach is not responsible to a player on an opposing team who is injured.” Nydegger, 495 A.2d at 485. The court elaborated:

Interscholastic sports are not compulsory school programs. Students who participate do so voluntarily. Those who participate in a sport such as soccer expect that there will be physical contact as a result of 22 young men running around a field 50 by 100 yards. Physical contact is not prohibited by the rules of soccer. Injuries do result. Those who participate are trained to play hard and aggressive.

[N]o student or parent [**17] is blind to the realities of interscholastic athletics. The possibility of a serious injury exists regardless of the care exercised by schools and their personnel. Imposing liability upon schools and their coaches based on negligent or wrongful acts of players, committed during the course of play would have the practical effect of eventually eliminating interscholastic athletics. Interscholastic athletic activities have become an integral part of the intellectual, physical and social development of young people. No matter what the intentions or good purpose, a coach cannot insure or guarantee that each and every member of his team will not commit a foul or will not in the heat of the contest do an act beyond that which is acceptable.

A coach cannot be held responsible for the wrongful acts of his players unless he teaches them to do the wrongful act or instructs them to commit the act. There is absolutely no evidence in the record that would support such a finding. Teaching players to be intense and aggressive is an attribute. All sports and many adult activities require aggressiveness and intensity.

Id. at 486-87.

The rationale in Nydegger holds true in this case. Plaintiff voluntarily [**18] participated in an aggressive contact sport where it is common to engage in on-field “rucks.” Plaintiff was involved in a ruck that day, administering a “short jab in the ribs” to the other player, when Kroesen intervened and kicked plaintiff in the face. Absent evidence that Cooley directed Kroesen specifically, or his team in general, to inflict violence onto opposing team players as part of the game, Cooley cannot be held liable for plaintiff’s injuries. Additionally, any of Cooley’s alleged failings as a coach as articulated by Dr. Lucenko cannot serve as the basis for finding proximate causation because there cannot be any definitive conclusion that even if Cooley were the perfect coach, Kroesen would not have acted as he did. See, e.g., id., at 486 (“[A] coach cannot insure or guarantee that each and every member of his team will not commit a foul or will not in the heat of the contest do an act beyond that which is acceptable.”); Divia v. South Hunterdon Regional High School, 2005 WL 977028, *7 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2005) (explaining that proximate cause is the efficient cause, the one which necessarily sets the other causes in operation; it is the act or omission, which [**19] directly brought about [*446] the happening complained of, and in the absence of which the happening complained of would not have occurred) (citing Verdicchio v. Ricca, 179 N.J. 1, 843 A.2d 1042, 1057 (N.J. 2004) (explaining that merely establishing that a defendant’s negligent conduct had some effect in producing the harm does not automatically satisfy the burden of proving it was a substantial factor)).

In sum, the evidence in the record, viewed most favorably to plaintiff, cannot support his claim that Cooley was grossly negligent in his coaching of Kroesen such that Cooley can be held liable for plaintiff’s injuries inflicted by Kroesen during the rugby match. Consequently, Cooley’s motion for summary judgment must be granted.10 An appropriate Order will be entered.

10 Plaintiff’s only remaining claim in this case is against Kroesen, upon whom the Clerk entered default at plaintiff’s request. (See 1/28/2011 Docket Entry.) As directed in the accompanying Order, plaintiff shall commence prosecution of his claim against Kroesen within 30 days, or this matter will be closed for lack of prosecution.

Date: March 25, 2014

At Camden, New Jersey

/s/ Noel L. Hillman

NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

ORDER

For the reasons expressed [**20] in the Court’s Opinion filed today,

IT IS on this 25th day of March , 2014

ORDERED that defendant Mark Cooley’s motion for summary judgment [34] is GRANTED; and it is further

ORDERED that, within 30 days of the date of this Order, plaintiff shall commence prosecution of his claims against defendant John A. Kroesen. If plaintiff fails to do so, plaintiff’s case will be closed for lack of prosecution.

/s/ Noel L. Hillman

NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.