Club must pay damages after player punched opponent

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The Independent Online

A rugby club must pay damages for injuries caused when one of its semi-professional players hit an opponent during a match, the Court of Appeal ruled today.

Halifax Rugby Football Club player Andrew Gravil, whose eye socket was broken in the incident, had his claim for damages against Redruth Rugby Football Club turned down in the High Court.

But today three appeal judges headed by the Master of the Rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke, said it was "fair and just" to hold all clubs liable where players had a contract of employment even though it was not their full-time job.

Sir Anthony said Redruth took no action itself against the player, Richard Carroll, who was later suspended for eight weeks by an RFU disciplinary panel.

"Perhaps it would have done if it had appreciated that there was a risk of liability in such cases in the future," said the judge.

Richard Cramer, the solicitor representing Mr Gravil, said the judgment clarified the law over semi-professional players.

He said the judges who heard the case before it reached the Court of Appeal had distinguished between full-time and semi-professional players.

Now clubs who employ part-timers have been found to be just as liable as top flight rugby clubs, he said.

Mr Carroll, from Redruth, Cornwall, punched Mr Gravil, aged 26, of Goole, East Riding, during a first XV National League Division 2 rugby union match.

The Cornish player was found liable for damages assessed at £8,500, none of which has been paid, said Sir Anthony.

The Redruth Club must now pay the damages, which with interest total £9,375.

Mr Gravil's claim against the club was dismissed by a trial judge and a High court judge but the appeal court agreed to hear the case because of the potential importance to sporting clubs of "off-the-ball" assaults during matches.

Sir Anthony said in his ruling: "The melee was just the kind of thing that both clubs would have expected to occur.

"Regrettably the throwing of punches is not uncommon in situations like this, when the scrum is breaking up after the whistle has gone.

"Indeed, they can fairly be regarded as an ordinary (though undesirable) incident of a rugby match.

"In these circumstances there was in our opinion a close, indeed a very close, connection between the first defendant's employment as a second row forward and his punching and injuring the claimant as a prop on the other side."

He added: "It is incumbent on both players and clubs to take all reasonable steps to eradicate, or at least minimise, the risk of foul play which might cause injury.

"As we see it, this involves clubs taking proactive steps to stamp it out."

Mr Gravil's barrister, Martin Seaward, said the lower courts had misapplied the case law relating to vicarious liability for employees.

He said: "All clubs in the rugby world will consider this judgment, which is the first vicarious liability case in rugby to be decided by the English courts. Clubs will now need to negotiate insurance against such vicarious liability.

"And it's not just the clubs that are looking on with interest. Players also know this case will have significant ramifications. In the event of deliberate assaults, players can expect their employing club to follow its own disciplinary procedure in future and not just leave it up to the Rugby Football Union.

"Now that deliberate foul play could cost clubs dearly, it will be actively discouraged and is likely to meet with something approaching zero tolerance.

"Rugby will still be played hard and fast with violent contact, but the players need to know that their opponents will abide by the rules of the game and not deliberately assault them. This judgment encourages clubs to encourage players to play by the rules."