On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at
Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, Stein
The opinion of the Court was delivered by HANDLER, J.
Plaintiff was playing catcher in a pickup softball game and was injured when defendant, attempting to score from second base, either slid or ran into him at home plate. Plaintiff sued to recover for his personal injuries. The critical issue in this action turns on
the nature of a player's duty to avoid inflicting physical injury on another player.
The issue is directly posed by the competing perspectives of the lower courts. The Law Division determined that the applicable standard governing players engaged in informal sports activity is to avoid injurious conduct that is reckless or intentional. 257 N.J. Super. 374, 608 A.2d 465 (1992). By contrast, the Appellate Division concluded that the appropriate standard of care is to avoid conduct that would constitute negligence under the circumstances. 266 N.J. Super. 599, 630 A.2d 368 (1992).
We conclude that the trial court was correct. We now hold that the duty of care applicable to participants in informal recreational sports is to avoid the infliction of injury caused by reckless or intentional conduct.
The game took place on May 1, 1988. The players consisted of a group that regularly participated each week, as well as other persons, either friends or bystanders, who joined the game. The composition of the two teams changed from week to week.
The teams were not associated with any league and the games were played without independent umpires or referees. The parties agree that the game was played under the general rules of softball. They disagree, however, whether the group had a rule prohibiting sliding.
Plaintiff's witnesses testified that the group played with a no-slide rule. They were uncertain about when the players first agreed to the rule, but they were certain that by the time the group began playing its weekly game, everyone understood that sliding was prohibited. In fact, whenever a player did slide, the other team invoked the rule.
Plaintiff's witnesses were equivocal about the exact scope of the no-slide rule. Whether the rule was a general no-slide rule or one that merely prohibited runners from purposely running into infielders
in order to break up a tag or double play is not clear. Plaintiff's witnesses did agree that the purpose of the rule was to prevent injury. In sharp contrast, defendant's witnesses, including defendant himself, insisted that no rule governed sliding at all.
Defendant was a runner on first base. The batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop, who flipped the ball to the second baseman to get the force-out on defendant. Defendant slid into second base, taking the legs out from beneath the second baseman. Plaintiff's witnesses testified that after that play, the other players reminded defendant that sliding was prohibited. Defendant, according to those witnesses, acknowledged the rule and indicated his willingness to abide by it. Defendant, however, disputed that version of events, testifying that his slide into second base did not result in any warning about sliding.
With defendant now on second, the next batter hit a ball to right field. As the outfielder relayed the ball to the first baseman, defendant rounded third and headed for home. Plaintiff, the catcher, testified that he was standing on the first-base side of home plate, with his left foot touching the right side of the plate. His body was turned toward first ready to receive the relay throw from the first baseman. As defendant approached the plate, he lowered his body and barrelled into plaintiff's left side. Plaintiff reeled backwards and defendant ended up on top of plaintiff's lower leg. Plaintiff heard a pop in his leg and then felt severe pain. Because he was off to the first-base side of the plate, plaintiff claims that defendant had ample room to run past him and touch home plate without making contact. He argues that defendant's motive in deliberately running into him was to dislodge the ball from plaintiff's glove to avoid the out. Defendant, however, testified that when he approached home plate, plaintiff was straddling the plate with a foot on either side. Defendant believed that the only way to reach home plate and to avoid a tag was to slide. He slid feet first into plaintiff's left leg. Although plaintiff later tried to resume play, his left leg collapsed under him when he attempted to run. He was taken from the field to a
hospital, where it was determined that he had suffered a torn knee ligament, which required surgery.
Plaintiff brought this action seeking recovery for his personal injuries. In three separate counts of his complaint, he alleged that defendant was liable because his conduct had been either negligent, reckless, or intentional. Prior to trial, plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the count alleging intentional conduct. The matter proceeded to trial on the issue of liability only. The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff, finding that defendant's conduct had been reckless and that plaintiff had not assumed the risk of reckless conduct. Defendant brought a motion for a new trial. Although the trial court denied defendant's claim that plaintiff should have been required to present expert testimony on the rules and conduct of the game, it granted defendant's motion on other evidentiary grounds.
Following an appeal and cross-appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's grant of a new trial, as well as its decision that expert testimony was not required. 266 N.J. Super. 599, 630 A.2d 368. However, it reversed the trial court on the proper standard required to establish liability for injuries sustained in informal athletic competition. It ruled that the proper standard was reasonableness under the circumstances.
Defendant filed a motion to the Court for leave to appeal the Appellate Division decision on the standard-of-care issue and the need for expert testimony. Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to cross appeal on the affirmance of the grant of a new trial. We granted those motions. 134 N.J. 557 (1993).
The majority of jurisdictions that have considered the issue of a person's duty to exercise care to avoid injury when engaged in a sports activity have concluded that to constitute a tort, conduct must exceed the level of ordinary negligence. Most courts have determined that the appropriate duty players owe to one another is not to engage in conduct that is reckless or intentional. See
Daniel E. Lazaroff, Torts & Sports: Participant Liability to Co-Participants for Injuries Sustained During Competition, 7 U. Miami Ent. & Sports L. Rev. 191, 195, 198 (1990) (stating that "the emerging legal standard requires either recklessness or specific intent to injure by defendant," and that "most modern courts raise the threshold for tort liability and require proof of reckless behavior.") Mel Narol, Sports Participation with Limited Litigation: The Emerging Reckless Disregard Standard, 1 Seton Hall J. Sport L. 29, 29-30 (1991) ("A trend has emerged. Courts and legislatures have espoused the view that torts which might be actionable in other arenas if negligence is shown, should . . . be actionable in the sports arena [only] if the aggrieved person demonstrates gross negligence or reckless disregard by the defendant.") In Nabozny v. Barnhill, 31 Ill. App. 3d 212, 334 N.E.2d 258 (Ill. App. Ct. 1975), a soccer goalie in a league for high-school-aged participants, was kicked in the head in the non-contact penalty area. The court concluded that "a player is liable for injury in a tort action if his conduct is such that it is either deliberate, wilful or with a reckless disregard for the safety of the other player so as to cause injury to that player." Id. at 261.
The preference for a standard of care that exceeds negligent conduct is driven by the perception that the risk of injury is a common and inherent aspect of informal sports activity. In Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 834 P.2d 696 (Cal. 1992), for example, a player was injured in a game of touch football. The court observed that "the nature of a sport is highly relevant in defining the duty of care owed by the particular defendant . . . In some situations, . . . the careless conduct of others is treated as an 'inherent risk' of a sport." Id. at 708. It concluded that "a participant in an active sport breaches a legal duty of care to other participants . . . only if the participant intentionally injures another player or engages in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally ...