The punch that rocked rugby

What seemed like an innocuous punch in a club match three years ago could now have massive legal ramifications for the game’s future.

On a damp, miserable, rainy afternoon in October, 2005, Halifax played host to Redruth at Standeven Memorial Ground in a gritty, bad-tempered affair dominated by both packs.

Early in the second half, a seemingly-innocuous scrum disintegrated into a shoving match between both sets of forwards. It was during that melee that Redruth second row Richard Carroll landed a blow on Halifax prop Andrew Garvil.

On an otherwise forgettable afternoon in Yorkshire, that momentary act of violence could turn out to be the punch that changes rugby forever.

Redruth Director of Rugby David Penberthy picks up the story, explaining: "It was a scrappy game and was a real forwards’ battle. They tried to push us around and we didn’t allow that.

"There was a scuffle from the scrum and their guy pushed our hooker and he fell over. Richard Carroll was looking after his mate and put one through, as they say. I'll be fair, he did catch him full on and it was a fairly nasty injury."

Carroll broke Garvil’s eye socket, leaving the Halifax front row requiring orbital surgery, yet he only received a yellow card and was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes.

"At the time I felt it was going to be a red card," Penberthy recalls. "But the linesman made a recommendation for a yellow. Richard came back on, the game finished and the guy was in the clubhouse after the game with a black eye. We left and we didn’t think any more about it."

But the incident was far from over. More punishment would be forthcoming and while both West Yorkshire and Devon and Cornwall Police decided there was no criminal case to answer, Garvil pursued a civil action, suing Carroll and the club.

The original ruling in December, 2006, ordered Carroll to pay Garvil damages but it did not find Redruth Rugby Club to be liable for the actions of its player. But that too changed earlier this summer when a High Court appeal on June 18 overturned the original decision and ruled that the club was indeed responsible for what happened on the pitch. Redruth was ordered to pay £8,500 in damages and £30,000 in costs, setting a precedent that could reverberate through the world of rugby.

"We were absolutely horrified," Penberthy admits. "It has set a huge precedent, not just across rugby but in any sport. We knew we were insured all the way through but it was the judgement we were more concerned about.

"I felt the whole incident was punished at the time. We don’t condone violence in any way but anybody who walks onto a rugby field accepts a certain element of risk. Professional sportsmen are watched from every angle and they have to be so careful now because it could be a tackle above the shoulder that causes damage, it could be anything."

Adrian Oliver, a senior partner at Cardiff-based specialists in sports law, Dolmans, followed the Garvil-Carroll case closely and believes a landmark ruling was made by the High Court.

"The distinction is that it is the first occasion in which a club has been found liable for damages," he explains. "It's a very significant development because up until now the club would argue they are responsible until the point where they put the player on the pitch.

"The court has ruled that if there is sufficient connection in terms of employment and the club, the employers should be liable. Players have always been exposed to being sued if there is deliberate and malicious assault. The significance of this ruling is that it won’t just affect them – it will impact on their coaches and their fellow players."

While Redruth was insured, both Penberthy and Oliver raise the question of what will happen to clubs who are not fully covered and then suffer a financial hit in the courtroom.

"I think you will find that insurance companies will review their policies," the Redruth boss stresses. "They will basically say that the club or player will become liable when they step outside the laws of the game. It may be that insurance companies pursue the individual legally. That may still happen in this case.

"From our club’s perspective, we’ve completely reviewed our disciplinary process and we have the players sign codes of conduct. We make it clear that anyone who steps outside the laws of the game will face punishment."

Oliver adds: "Because this is a new development in the law there may be insurers who say that this wasn’t in the original contract and therefore they’re not going to indemnify the club."

RFU chief disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett does not share the sentiment that clubs will fail to get insured but warns: "The more claims there are, the higher the premiums will be and in a contact sport, the risk is going to be higher than other sports. The insurers will no doubt adjust the premium accordingly. That, I’m afraid, is part of rugby."

While top flight professional clubs have adequate cover in place to account for any financial claim made against them, the same cannot be said for teams in the lower reaches who maintain semi-professional or amateur status.

"It is those feeder clubs who struggle to remain solvent year in and year out who could suffer," Oliver stresses. "For them a claim like this could be a death knell. This could cause clubs to have to disband."

Penberthy admits Redruth could have been thrown into financial disarray by the ruling, revealing: "If we had not been insured, it would have had a massive effect on our club being able to compete at National Two level. We would have needed to make drastic cuts to our playing squad.

"Inexperienced players would have been thrown into the fire and relegation would have been a distinct possibility. The knock-on effect of relegation in Cornwall is that your crowds drop away, your sponsors drop away and your income falls. Before you know it things have spiralled out of control and you’ve got another West Hartlepool on your hands."

With this ruling now in the history books, the concern is that rugby clubs will now see a spate of claims against them due to the on-field actions of their players.

"This will create a significant development across the country," Oliver insists. "And the danger is that a lot of clubs are not in a position to pay these kind of damages. This can affect so many sports because contact sports create the potential for conflict."

Blackett does not share such a gloomy prognosis and feels clubs at all levels of the game should not be reaching for the panic button just yet.

"We must not over-react to these matters," he insists. "There will be some but you won't see a spate of claims. It has happened and it will happen in the future but I don’t think it’s going to be endemic and it won’t have much impact on the game.

"Of course, there is a possibility of clubs folding when a judgement is made against them, but I wouldn’t say it’s a probability. There must be room for a person whose livelihood is affected through an act of gross negligence or misconduct to sue those who caused the damage. We must not be scared of that and clearly the club is vicariously liable for the actions of its employees.

"When people are involved in these cases they get very emotional about them and feel it is going to undermine the whole of rugby. It is not."

Penberthy disagrees and believes the case could serve as an incentive for ambulance-chasing, no-win no fee lawyers.

"Those guys are going to be circling," he says. "If you look at the number of yellow cards issued every week at all levels of rugby, you’re going to get these solicitors ringing up offering their services. Somebody could make quite a tasty living out of it.

"We have to find a way to protect ourselves and the players because we don’t want them going out onto the field with the fear somebody is hiding behind a bush waiting for something to happen so they can take them to court and get a couple of quid out of them."

This story was sourced from International Rugby News

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