Reasonable Doubt: The legal obligations of a recreational team captain

Reckless players and team captains be warned! Kevin Yee talks about the possible ways you may be legally responsible for actions that happen on the field, ice, or court! Don’t miss this piece if you’re involved in sports at any level.

We have recreational leagues all over the Lower Mainland. Urban Rec organizes just about any sport you’d want to play. I’ve played in my share of rec leagues over the years. They can be pretty relaxed when it comes to letting unregistered people play. Here’s a common scenario: on game day, your team is desperate for subs. At the last minute, a friend of a friend or a family member steps up. This person plays this one time. Of course, this person didn’t register with the league but it’s okay since it’s just for fun.

No matter the sport, the league, or the level of play, I’ve seen one constant in rec sports: someone always takes the game too seriously. It’s that one person who ruins it for everyone by crossing the line from competitive play to reckless play. It leaves everyone else on the ice/field/court wondering: Wow, this is getting out of control. I don’t want to get hurt. And besides, I’ve got to work tomorrow.

Often times, this dangerous player is just a last minute sub who doesn’t know the rules of play. But what if he or she injures another person? And if this sub can’t be identified, seeing as this player never registered, who’d be legally responsible then? The B.C. Supreme Court just recently dealt with such a case.

It would be tempting to look to the league for legal remedies. However, that may be difficult since the injured person probably had to sign a waiver to join. You know how you register with the league and sign some acknowledgment? Maybe you clicked “I agree” on the online registration without reading the pages of legal-speak. You may have given up your right to sue the league by doing so.

If not the league, what about the team captain? Can you hold a captain of a rec team responsible for the misconduct of a rogue player?

Here are the facts in that B.C. Supreme Court case. Someone got injured playing in an Urban Rec league for non-contact soccer. He got slide tackled which was expressly forbidden in the rules. The rules also clearly set out that the soccer was non-competitive. Players were even required to call their own fouls. Players were required to sign acknowledgments of the rules when they registered. The rules also required that captains ensure their teammates knew the rules of play.

So who was the slide-tackling culprit? It was an unregistered player—a “John Doe”. No one involved in the lawsuit could identify this person. As for John Doe’s captain—she was designated captain by the league because she registered the team into the league. She rarely played herself. In fact, she wasn’t even at the game when the plaintiff got injured.

The fascinating decision before the court was whether the captain was negligent for the actions of the slide-tackling John Doe. The plaintiff accused the captain of negligence in allowing someone play on the team without ensuring that he knew the rules of play. First, the court quickly dismissed any argument that the plaintiff should have known the risk of a slide tackle in a soccer game. This was because of the particular set of facts: this was a non-contact league that specifically catered to players who wanted to play for fun. The court didn’t think he should be expected to be aware of this risk. So, did the court find the captain negligent?

Yes. The captain was held legally responsible here. The court found that the captain was expected to ensure that everyone playing for the team knew the rules. Even though she was not there, she could have delegated her captain duties to someone else that day. And as a result of this negligence, someone got injured. As the negligent party, the captain will be liable for the damages suffered by the plaintiff. Since the captain’s team was representing a local university that was the captain’s employer, the university was also found liable.

What is the take-home message from this interesting case? Well, if you’re a captain on a rec league, you may have more responsibilities than you realize. They may be more than simply paying the league fees up front. They may be more than sending YouTube videos to teammates for motivation on game day. As captain, you may be held accountable for the actions of your teammates. It’s something to consider before you volunteer yourself as the captain or before you invite your goalie’s hothead cousin as a desperately needed sub.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.