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Amateur umpire held liable for injuries

A High Court ruling in England holding a referee responsible for a player’s injuries has highlighted the liability risks faced by sporting officials everywhere. The court found the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) was liable when an amateur player was paralysed after a scrum collapsed. The player, Richard Vowles, 29, now wheelchair-bound, brought a damages action against the match referee, for whom the WRU accepted vicarious liability. Mr Vowles is expected to be awarded a huge compensation pay-out. It is believed to be the first time that an amateur referee in any sport in Britain has been held liable in the context of an adult amateur game. Mr Vowles claimed match referee David Evans broke the rules by allowing a scrummage to be weakened by inexperienced players in poor weather conditions. The judge found that the referee was in breach of his duty to take reasonable care for the safety of the players. In Australia, the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) chairman Bruce McTaggart said the court ruling highlighted problems peculiar to rugby. Mr McTaggart, a barrister, said rugby was the only game he knew where a referee had control over a situation—a scrum—which could foreseeably lead to injury. He said all VAFA umpires were trained and insured but sports across the board were facing an officiating crisis. Because sports were increasingly forced to rely upon inexperienced umpires, Mr McTaggart said the High Court’s ruling was “a little bit frightening”. Australia-New Zealand Sports Law Association president Simon Roffe said the High Court’s ruling was not surprising and did not extend the law of liability. Mr Roffe said referees, sporting organisations, coaches, venue owners and operators, medical attendants, and sports participants all owed a duty of care. But he said the ruling was important because it focused attention on the need for referees to ensure the health and safety of players, to observe the rules, to be trained, and to be insured. A shortage of volunteers could not be used as an excuse for using untrained or inexperienced officials, he said (from The Age (Melbourne), January 2003; contributed by Ian Scott).

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