Paralysed rugby player sues referee for pounds 1m damages case told of rising tide of rugby injuries in pounds 1m damages

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:29

A 21-year-old rugby player yesterday launched a legal battle for pounds 1m compensation from a referee and another player after he was paralysed for life when a scrum collapsed.

Ben Smoldon was on the threshold of a happy and fulfilling life before the accident during a game between Sutton Coldfield and Burton on Trent under-19 colts in October 1991, the High Court was told.

Now tetraplegic, he is condemned to a wheelchair existence for the rest of his days, his counsel, Peter Andrews QC, told Mr Justice Curtis.

Mr Smoldon, of Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, is suing the match referee Michael Nolan and Thomas Whitworth, a member of the opposing team, who both deny liability.

Mr Andrews said that Mr Smoldon, who played hooker, was injured when the scrum collapsed and the bodily force exerted by the other members caused his neck to be dislocated. "He thought at the time it was a one in a million accident. In fact, there has been, unhappily, an increasing history of serious injury in the game of rugby and Ben has fallen victim to that pattern of catastrophic injury."

Mr Andrews said he would argue that the match was not played according to the laws of the game or in a sporting spirit. The referee's role was crucial in controlling what was a potentially dangerous sport.

In every match he must apply the laws of the game fairly and without omission - laws designed to preserve the safety of the players in what was essentially a robust physical contact sport which carried an omnipresent risk of personal injury.

He added: "Unfortunately in this game the laws were persistently contravened and ignored and some of those present actually foresaw the likelihood of injury before Ben's accident. The playing, particularly in the scrummages, was very dangerous."

A touch judge had warned the referee that unless he did something, someone in the front row of the scrummage was going to be injured. "Mr Nolan agreed but, in effect, said he could not do anything about the situation."

A spectator had also commented afterwards that, in respect of the scrum collapsing, he had never seen a game like it.

Mr Andrews said that between 1954 and 1993, 226 medical papers had been published on rugby injuries, which concluded it was the sporting activity most likely to give rise to personal injury. There had been a dramatic increase in injuries to the spine from 1970 onwards with nine such injuries in the 1980-81 season. Front-row players, and especially the hooker, were at particular risk from scrummage injuries caused by the scrum collapsing.

In an attempt to improve the situation, the laws of the game were adjusted in the early 1980s.

Mr Andrews said: "It's clear that well before the 1991-92 season, officials of the game ought to have known of the risk of spinal injuries to those who play, particularly in the front row."

The case, which is likely to last two weeks, is believed to be the first time in England that a referee has been sued in such a situation and will have wide implications not only for rugby, but refereeing in general.

Mr Nolan is being backed by the Rugby Football Union, which insures referees.

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