Injured footballer loses pounds 1m damages case: Better insurance for players urged as defender whose career was ended faces huge costs. Simon Midgley reports

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The Independent Online
PAUL ELLIOTT, the former Chelsea footballer, yesterday lost his High Court battle to win more than pounds 1m damages from the Welsh international Dean Saunders and his former club Liverpool.

He failed to persuade Mr Justice Drake that Mr Saunders, 29, had intentionally jumped at him rather than at the ball in a match between Liverpool and Chelsea on 5 September 1992. Mr Elliott ruptured the ligaments of his right knee, ending his chances of pursuing an international career.

Mr Elliott, who is considering whether to appeal against the judgment, faces legal costs of up to pounds 500,000. 'I am naturally disappointed,' he said. 'Now I just want a well-earned rest.'

Mr Saunders said: 'All I can say is that we should never have been here in the first place.'

Mr Justice Drake said that until football's ruling body found an alternative way of resolving such disputes without recourse to the courts, injured players had every right to seek compensation through the law.

The issue before the judge was whether Mr Saunders was guilty of committing a foul with reckless disregard for the consequences when he and Mr Elliott, 30, chased for the same ball. Had the judge found for the plaintiff, Mr Elliott would have returned to the High Court seeking damages in excess of pounds 1m.

Mr Saunders and Liverpool denied liability for the injury and argued that the claimed duty of care required of professional footballers to their opponents in this instance was too high and that the injury was caused by Mr Elliott's own negligence in making a dangerous lunging tackle.

Now Mr Elliott will have to meet the costs of all three parties to the dispute. Although Chelsea have said that the case has nothing to do with the club, they have recently provisionally agreed a compensation package for Mr Elliott which is worth several hundred thousand pounds.

Mr Justice Drake said: 'I find that Dean Saunders was not guilty of dangerous or reckless play and that Mr Elliott has failed to prove Saunders was in breach of the duty of care he owed to Elliott in all the circumstances of this case.'

The spectacle of one top-flight professional football player suing another in the High Court for injuries inflicted on the pitch has provoked deep unease in the football world. Insurance companies fear that several other cases involving injured footballers are in the pipeline, although yesterday's judgment against Mr Elliott may have diminished that prospect.

Insurers are already talking about doubling the sum of money spent annually on insuring professional footballers in Britain from pounds 750,000 to pounds 1.5m in order to cover the high costs of legal action.

Monica Hartland, press officer of the National Federation of Football Supporters' Clubs, said supporters would have to meet the cost of rising premiums in the form of higher ticket prices.

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, which represents 2,000 full-time professionals, said lawyers had recently been encouraging players to seek redress in the High Court.

The high cost of such cases, he said,would make it imperative for football to find a way of resolving as many disputes as possible without recourse to the courts. A meeting between the Football Association, the Professional Footballers' Association, and a leading insurance company has been held to discuss whether such disputes could be considered by FA disciplinary tribunals consisting of football experts.

Mr Taylor said that one positive result of the case was that more professional footballers may be persuaded to take out personal insurance. Only a minority of players do so at present although the careers of 50 British players a year are ended by injury. He added: 'Players can be quite superstitious. They don't want to tempt fate.'

One of the reasons why Paul Elliott, who as a leading player would have been earning up to pounds 150,000 a year - brought the case to the High Court, according to his solicitor John Stitt, was that his personal insurance was inadequate. Although he received a payment at the time of his injury, it 'did not begin to stack up against his calculated loss. He was put out of the game and suffered a substantial financial loss that he is now trying to recover. Had Elliott been insured for pounds 1m he would not have brought the case.'

Mr Stitt says that the FA should direct all clubs to make it compulsory on the acquisition of a player to insure him comprehensively against injuring a fellow player or suffering an injury himself.

'I think that the FA should say that this insurance has got to be placed through a reputable firm of insurance brokers who will place the cover with companies who operate knock-for-knock agreements. If they operate knock-for-knock agreements then the sensible conclusion of incidents will be that the insurers of each party pay half of the total damage each without raising the question of who was to blame.'

In his judgment, Mr Justice Drake said he sympathised with those who thought that football should have its own system of resolving disputes - perhaps through a tribunal system - and compensating injured players.

Compulsory insurance, he said, might seem an attractive alternative but the insurance company that had to meet the claim might want to sue the player who caused the injury, which would still result in the dispute going to court.

Perhaps 'no fault' liability insurance should be introduced for professional footballers. Until an alternative system had been introduced, however, it would be wholly wrong to prevent an injured player from claiming compensation in the courts.

Ms Hartland said that if Paul Elliott had won the case it would have been virtually the end of football. 'Football is about passion, aggression, confrontation and above all spontaneity. It's unreal. A footballer is not going to say I must not tackle, I could end up in court.

'Because it's a game with passion and aggression and confrontation that maximises the probability of fouls and injuries. You take one with the other. I and my fellow supporters don't want to see people pussyfooting around. We may as well go to the seaside and see someone play with a beach ball.

'The players do go into this with their eyes open and they have got to understand that and act accordingly; in other words take out major insurance.'

(Photographs omitted)