Ben Smoldon, 21, now a tetraplegic, was injured while playing hooker in a game between Sutton Coldfield and Burton-on-Trent Colts in October 1991. Claiming pounds 1m compensation, he sued the Burton prop forward Thomas Whitworth, accusing him of collapsing the scrum, and the referee Michael Nolan for not keeping proper control.
Although he considered Mr Whitworth, 22, from Stoke on Trent, to be a short-tempered man who might well have been "hard" in the scrum, Mr Justice Curtis "acquitted" him of any liability in negligence to Mr Smoldon. But the judge said Mr Nolan, 54, an Army cadet force administrator from Staffordshire, who was backed by the Rugby Football Union, had "failed to exercise reasonable care and skill" in preventing scrum collapses.
Yesterday's decision was followed by an immediate warning that the floodgates could now be open to similar claims. Edward Grayson, president of the British Association for Sport and the Law, said: "The chemistry master who likes picking up the whistle as a hobby has now got to understand the intricacies of the laws of the game, because if he doesn't the
consequences could be horrendous."
In his judgement, Mr Justice Curtis said that Mr Nolan had not given "sufficient instruction to the front rows and in the use of the `crouch, touch, pause and engage' rule thereby reducing the impact of the engagement to an acceptable level."
The court heard that there were at least 20 scrum collapses in the match, caused mainly by the scrums coming together too hard and fast. The normal figure was around six.
A touch judge had warned the referee that someone in the front row of the scrum would be hurt if he did not take action. Mr Nolan claimed that he did not see any deliberate unlawful behaviour in the collapsed scrum which caused Ben's injury.
Mr Justice Curtis said the danger of collapsed scrums was well known in the game and considerable steps had been taken to reduce the dangers. He stressed that his decisions were based on the fact that the match involved colts teams - where younger bodies were more susceptible to injury - and upon the laws governing that level in the 1991-92 season. Nothing he said applied to senior, international or colts rugby played under different laws.
The judge rejected the argument that the law should not interfere in a hard contact sport because it would lead to defensive refereeing. "No responsible player and no responsible referee has anything to fear," he said.
After the judgement, Mr Smoldon said:"I do not want to discourage any player from playing the game of rugby, but I hope this case is one step to making the game safer." He would continue to support the game of rugby.
His solicitor, Terry Lee, said: "It's a very, very important judgment ...The legal implications will be with us for a long time to come."
The case was the first of its kind against a referee, and Colin Herridge, a Rugby Football Union official, said the ramifications were widespread. "It would seem that no referee will go into a game without being totally insured, and I would imagine that insurance premiums will go up dramatically for anybody officiating in any sport where a person could be injured."
The extent of the damages to be awarded to Mr Smoldon is expected to be decided within the next nine to twelve months.
Mr Justice Curtis said that Mr Nolan should pay the costs of the action, but ordered Mr Smoldon, who is legally aided, to pay Mr Whitworth's costs after he had received damages.
Afterwards, Mr Whitworth said: "Whilst I am relieved that this case is over for me, I remain very aware of the severity of Ben Smoldon's injuries and I wish him well."
Mr Nolan, who is understood to be insured, was said to be"deeply disappointed" and considering an appeal. No formal complaint has been made against him and he is still refereeing.
Extensive efforts have been made by the Rugby Football Union to make the game safer at junior level, up to and including under-19s. No player aged 16 and below is allowed to play against any team in which there are adult players - those aged 19 or over.
At scrums, no player is permitted to have his shoulders lower than his hip joint at scrums, mauls and rucks. If guilty of this the referee must immediately penalise the offender.
In the event of one front row being stronger then the other, referees should instruct the more powerful side to reduce their shove sufficiently to ensure the opposing front row stays on their feet.
In junior rugby no scrum may be pushed further than 1.5m and the referee can order non-contested scrums to take place at any time during a game if, for example, one side has lost a front row player and does not have a specialist to replace him.
All sides from full England level to juniors must have a replacement prop and hooker on the sidelines.
Crisis for rugby, Page 28Reuse content