Law Report: Athlete was not entitled to damages

Tuesday Law Report: 27 July 1999; Modahl v British Athletic Federation Ltd House of Lords (Lord Irvine of Lairg, Lord Chancellor, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, Lord Hoffmann, Lord Clyde and Lord Millett) 22 July 1999
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The Independent Culture
THE BRITISH Athletics Federation could not be liable in damages to an athlete accused of a doping offence for losses sustained during a period of suspension between the commencement of disciplinary proceedings against her and her reinstatement following a successful appeal because the accredited status of the laboratory which had tested a sample taken from her had been vitiated.

The House of Lords dismissed the appeal of Diane Modahl against the decision of the Court of Appeal that part of her claim for damages for breach of contract against the British Athletics Federation should be struck out.

The plaintiff was suspended from competition by the British Athletic Federation (BAF) because of an allegation that she had breached rule 24(5)(a) of its Rules for Competition by committing the offence of doping in Portugal. Rule 24(14) provided:

an athlete shall be suspended from the time that the Drug Advisory Committee considers that there is evidence that a doping offence may have taken place and written notice to that effect has been sent to the athlete concerned.

The plaintiff was found guilty by the Disciplinary Committee, but appealed successfully to an Independent Appeal Panel. She was reinstated, and commenced proceedings against the BAF.

The plaintiff claimed damages for the financial loss she had suffered because she was unable to compete in international athletics for nearly a year. The BAF applied under Order 18 rule 19 of the Rules of the Supreme Court to strike out the claim on the ground that it disclosed no reasonable cause of action. The statement of claim alleged (i) that two members of the disciplinary committee were biased; and (ii) that the charge was brought in breach of the rules since the Portuguese laboratory which had tested the plaintiff's urine sample was not officially accredited because it had moved its premises without notifying the IAAF or the International Olympic Committee.

The judge dismissed the summons to strike out, and the BAF appealed. The Court of Appeal upheld the judge's decision on the bias point, but allowed the appeal on the accreditation point. The plaintiff appealed.

David Donaldson QC and Clare Weir (Mishcon de Reya) for the plaintiff; Charles Flint QC and Paul Golding (Edge Ellison) for the BAF.

Lord Hoffmann said that the IAAF had strict rules against drug-taking, and it was a condition of membership of the IAAF that national athletics federations adopted rules which enforced those of the IAAF.

Rule 24(14) of the BAF's Rules on Competition said that the athlete should be suspended "from the time that the Drug Advisory Committee considers that there is evidence that a doping offence may have taken place". The suspension and commencement of proceedings involved no finding by the Drug Advisory Committee that any offence had been committed or that the laboratory report was accurate.

It would be quite inconsistent with those procedures to imply a term that the national federation should not be entitled to initiate disciplinary proceedings if the laboratory had done something to vitiate its status. That was a matter which might not be within the knowledge of the BAF at all.

The IAAF's system for the control of drug abuse was plainly draconian, but it would be capricious to construe the Rules to mean that an athlete was entitled to financial compensation if proceedings against her were initiated on the basis of a test (which might well have been accurate) from a laboratory which had moved its premises, but not a test which was wrong on any other ground.

The IAAF had adopted its system of instant suspension followed by disciplinary proceedings in the belief that, although it might sometimes cause injustice in the individual case, it was necessary in the wider interests of the sport.

Kate O'Hanlon,

Barrister

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