The car of NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski flipped over and crashed Sunday after another driver, Carl Edwards, bumped him during the Sprint Cup race in Atlanta. (Watch the video here.) Edwards admitted it was retaliation for a similar bump from Keselowski last April. NASCAR has put Edwards on probation for three races as punishment. What if Keselowski had been injured in the crash? Would Edwards be liable?
Possibly. Courts have determined that when you play a sport—or get behind the wheel of a race car—you assume certain risks inherent to the game. So there are greater limits on the liability of whoever caused the injury than under normal circumstances. For example, if someone broke your collarbone by randomly tackling you on the street, you could sue them and probably win. But if they do it on the football field, they’re protected. Whether or not Edwards would be liable for injuring Keselowski would depend on whether a court decided that his actions—nudging a car intentionally with the goal of crashing it—were inherent to the sport.
Courts draw the line at conduct outside the normal rules and customs of the game. If a football player is injured because someone hit him too hard during regular play, the person who hit him isn’t liable. However, if they intentionally hit him after the play is over—which is against the rules—they might be. But even breaking the rules doesn’t necessarily make the player liable. For example, it’s against the rules of basketball to foul someone when they’re taking a shot. But it’s also customary to commit fouls on purpose for strategic reasons. If a player were injured while trying to take a shot, the defender might get suspended from the game. But the shooter would have a tough time pressing charges, since fouls are part of the sport. (Punching someone in the face, however, is not.)
In practice, it’s rare for players to bring lawsuits against their opponents. In 2006, Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth stomped on the head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode after a play was over, inflicting a wound that required 30 stitches. Haynesworth was suspended, but Gurode declined to file suit. When players do try to sue each other, the cases often settle. In 2002, a baseball player for the Evansville Purple Aces reached an out-of-court settlement against a pitcher who intentionally beaned him—while he was more than 20 feet from home plate, no less—and permanently damaged his vision. Occasionally, jurisdictions will press criminal charges. A Canadian court, for example, found Boston Bruins player Marty McSorley guilty of assault with a weapon in 2000 after McSorley hit another player in the head with his stick. In 2004, Vancouver Canucks player Todd Bertuzzi pled guilty in British Columbia to assault causing bodily harm after an on-ice fight left Colorado Avalanche player Steve Moore with fractured vertebrae, a concussion, and cuts to the face.
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Explainer thanks Michael McCann of Vermont Law School and Geoffrey Rapp of the University of Toledo College of Law.