Liability for Injuries suffered in Combat Sports

What are Combat Sports?

Combat sports are one of the fastest growing sports in the world, both in terms of participation, spectators, and revenue. The most well-known combat sport is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The UFC has previously attracted over 2.4 million pay per view viewers in one event, which was no doubt a factor leading to its record ownership sale in 2021 of US $1.7 billion.

Combat sports is a broad categorisation of different forms of established combat sports and martial arts originating from a variety of different cultures and countries. Combat sports have evolved into various forms and styles of combat. These include Boxing, Wrestling, Ju Jitsu, Karate, Judo, Muay Thai (a traditional Thai boxing style), Kick boxing (K1) and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

Medical Concerns

As in all sports there is the potential to suffer injury when engaging in combat sports at all levels. The difference with combat sports from other sports is the definitive intention to force your opponent into either submission or to suffer an injury which would be significant enough to render that person physically unable to continue.

Potential medical concerns come with the understanding that combat sports are focused on the technique to cause harm. The consequence of such physical violence naturally carries the high-risk level of doing physical damage to competitors.

In a recent study, Dr Lystad of Macquarie University observed the deaths of boxers between the year 1832 and 2020, which included 122 professional and 40 amateur boxers, in Australia alone. With most of the deaths caused because of a traumatic brain injury. Dr Lystad noted that minority of deaths occurred during the fight, however, the majority (96%) occurred post fight, being in the following days after the event.

Michael Watson Case

The highest profile case relating to combat sport and liability for injuries suffered, involved a professional boxer called Michael Watson.

Mr Watson was an English professional middleweight boxer who fought on the 21st of September 1991 in a fight supervised by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC). The fight was against Mr Chris Eubank with both fighters having previously fought for world titles.  During the fight Mr Watson was knocked out by a punch. It is reported that it took 7 minutes before doctors provided medical assistance to Mr Watson. Subsequently, an ambulance was called. During the immediate treatment for his injuries, Mr Watson was not given oxygen and was first sent to a hospital which lacked a neurosurgery unit.

Tragically, Mr Watson spent 40 days in a coma and 6 years in a wheelchair with doctors predicting he would never walk again.

Mr Watson brought a claim against the BBBC (see (2002) QB 1134 and (2000) EWCA Civ 2116) arguing that as they made the rules governing professional boxing in Britain that ensured his safety, they owed him a duty of care and should have ensured that he was appropriately treated following him being knocked out.

The medical evidence relied on was to the effect that as Mr Watson did not receive medical attention until 7minutes after being knocked out, this allowed time for a brain haemorrhage to have a significant impact on his health. Further, the chosen medical decisions when attending to Mr Watson following him being knocked out also exacerbated the injuries suffered.

The case went to the English Court of Appeal following Mr Watson initially being successful (being awarded around one million pounds in damages).  The Court of Appeal noted that the BCCC had taken control of medically supervising the sport of boxing in Britain and that their duty of care was not just to avoid injuries but “to ensure that injuries already sustained are properly treated”.  This was an extension to the previous duty of care in negligence as it extended the liability that a person will not be liable for personal harm in sporting contests in which the injured person consents to. Accordingly, the BBBC were liable for their failure to provide or have in place adequate medical treatment at the event at which Mr Watson was injured. The amount for damages was however reduced to 400,000 pounds. Interestingly, the BBBC were forced to sell their London headquarters to enable them to pay the judgement.

Deaths in fight competitions are not surprising with many medical complications being brain haemorrhages and heart attacks. It can be observed that sanctioned fights are regulated with medical supervision. However, it is to be determined what extent will medical examinations be carried out to ensure the risk of harm is minimised after the fight.

Liability for Injuries Suffered During Combat Sports

Normally, the governing body for the combat sport and/or the promoters of the event would have the responsibility to ensure that the event was conducted safely. This would include owing a duty of care to the participants in the event. This duty of care can be defined as the obligation to take the actions necessary to prevent foreseeable harm to property or to a person.

This duty of care in Australia is also subject to the relevant Civil Liability Act (or similar legislation) operating in the relevant state.

Importantly, being involved in combat sport involves each participant consenting to being assaulted, both in the criminal and civil sense.  No liability would ordinarily attach to participants who engaged in typical and expected actions in their sport.  This general consent may not apply if one participant went outside the expected activity – e.g. engaged in a dangerous or illegal head kick of an amateur in sparring or physically attacked someone following a submission.  If a competitor/athlete was found to be acting outside the expected activity, this could expose that person to personal liability.

A case heard in the New South Wales Court of Appeal considered the exposure of personal liability in professional sports (see Goode v Angland [2017] NSWCA 311). Mr Paul Goode, a professional English Jockey riding in Australia, was involved in a race fall at Queanbeyan racecourse leaving him with catastrophic injuries. Mr Goode claimed that his mount (horse) clipped the heels of the horse in front of him, after Mr Tye Angland (Defendant), steered his horse toward the running rail. Lawyers for both parties argued the rules of racing, specifically the safe distance between horses. Mr Angland denied he was liable and stated he had not felt any interference, only learning of Mr Goode’s fall post-race.

Justice Ian Harrison dismissed the claim in the NSW Supreme Court and ruled in favour of Mr Angland. Justice Harrison found that Mr Angland had not ridden in a way that was negligent, unsafe, or contributed to the fall. Interesting to note, he also found Mr Goode’s own actions had not caused or contributed to the accident, agreeing with expert evidence and reiterating that Mr Goode’s horse was “over-racing” at the time of the fall. This case highlighting that when an athlete is abiding by the rules of their specific event/sport, a court is unlikely to find them personally liable even when a tragic accident occurs.

For organisations which host competitions, the protection of various State laws around obvious risk assists them to manage their liability in conducting the sports.  The law provides that a participant cannot take action where the injury was caused by an expected or likely outcome of the activity.  All participants cannot sue for negligence where the obvious risk eventuated at no fault of the organiser.

However, exceptions do apply. Recently, the High Court of Australia in the case of Tapp v Australian Bushmen’s Campdraft & Rodeo Association Ltd [2022] HCA 11 had to rule on a horse drafting competition where the arena was found to be unsafe, which caused a horse to fall. The Court found that the circumstances which caused the horse to fall and injure the rider was not an obvious risk as the arena should have been presented and maintained during competition to reduce that risk. In this regard, the organisers of the event breached their duty of care in not stopping the event after four other falls shortly before the rider suffered injury.

Recommendations for sporting organisations involved in Combat Sports

All organisations should ensure they follow any association guidelines and industry standards for carrying out their activities.  Items to check for include:

  • Ensuring competitors have signed a properly worded exclusion or waiver from legal action
  • Taking reasonable steps to ensure participants are properly coached and warned about fair conduct and consequences for breach, including managing events as they occur
  • Ensuring the facilities are fit for purpose and to reasonably act on any complaints about unsafe equipment
  • Follow State WHS rules
  • Ensure appropriate and timely medical assistance is available, and any incident taken seriously
  • Supervising officials to be trained to look for signs of serious injury and to act as a precaution first rather than wait and see.

Get legal support

Salerno Law have accredited specialists in Insurance Law, and a dedicated team of Lawyers who provide specialist advice in the area of Sports Law. Salerno Law’s experienced lawyers can assist with any enquiry or support need for combat sport organisers, event providers or injured competitors.

Authors Talulah Linegar, Luke McCormack, and Peter Matus