No Duty Rule In Negligence Actions

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Craig v. Amateur Softball Association of America, 951 A.2d 372 (Pa. Super. 2008)

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Analysis

In the case of Craig v. Amateur Softball Association of America, 951 A.2d 372 (Pa. Super. 2008), the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed and refined the common-law “no duty rule.” The “no duty rule” provides generally that a defendant owes no duty of care to warn, protect, or insure against risks that are common, frequent, expected, and inherent in an activity. See Jones v. Three Rivers Management Corp., 394 A.2d 546 (1978) (adopting and defining the “no duty” rule). If it is determined that the “no duty rule” is applicable to a negligence claim, a plaintiff will be unable to set forth a prima facie case of liability. See McCandless v. Edwards, 908 A.2d 900, 903 (Pa. Super. 2006) (stating that a prima facie cause of action in negligence requires a showing of duty, breach, causation, and damages), appeal denied 923 A.2d 1174 (Pa. 2007).

In Craig, the plaintiff alleged that he was injured when he was struck in the head with a softball while running the bases during a recreational softball game. The force of the softball’s impact crushed his skull. The softball game was organized under the rules of the Amateur Softball Association of America (“ASAA”). Plaintiff filed suit against ASAA and claimed that ASAA breached its duty of care to plaintiff by failing to recommend or require that plaintiff wear a batting helmet. The Trial Court granted ASAA’s preliminary objections and dismissed plaintiff’s Complaint. Plaintiff appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed the Trial Court, holding that plaintiff’s Complaint failed to set forth a sustainable cause of action in negligence. Craig, 951 A.2d at 378.

The Superior Court held, as a matter of law, that the risk of getting hit with a softball was common, expected, and frequent in the game of softball. Craig, 951 A.2d at 377. the Superior Court held that plaintiff assumed the risk of his injury when he elected to play softball: the risk was so apparent and so integral to softball that playing softball was tantamount to voluntarily encountering a known risk. Id., citing Loughran v. Phillies, 888 A.2d 872, 875 (Pa. Super. 2005) (holding that being struck by a baseball thrown into the stands is an inherent and obvious risk of attending a game).

The Craig plaintiff attempted to circumvent the “no duty rule” by distinguishing the particular facts of his injury from what would be reasonably expected during the normal course of a recreational softball game. The Superior Court rejected plaintiff’s argument, holding that the result was unexpected but that the risk was not. The salient test of the “no duty rule” is therefore whether the injuries resulted from a frequent and expected risk, not whether the result of encountering the risk was unusually severe or abnormal.

The Craig plaintiff also attempted to avoid the “no duty rule” by invoking public policy. The Superior Court held that there was no public policy bar and that community standards did not impel a universal moratorium on sports injuries. The Court further held that there was a public policy justification for the “no duty rule.” The only recognized public policy exception to the “no duty rule” arises if the mechanism of injury deviates from the established custom of the activity in which the plaintiff engaged. This public policy exception is not really an exception at all: if the mechanism of injury diverges from the established custom of the activity, then the risk is not actually frequent, expected, or inherent, and the “no duty rule” should not apply anyway.

What It Means to You

The Craig decision is significant for several reasons. First, it contravenes the recent trend in recent Superior Court decisions of overruling or restricting bright-line common-law prohibitions on tort recovery. Second, it appears to be the first time in Pennsylvania that the “no duty rule” was successfully applied to a participant in a sporting event. contra Crews v. Seven Springs Mountain Resort, 874 A.2d 100 (Pa. Super. 2005) (holding that a downhill skier’s claim against a ski resort resulting from being run into by an intoxicated, underage skier was not precluded by the “no duty rule” because intoxicated, underage skiers are not inherent to the sport of skiing). Third, the Craig Court refused to follow the guidance of Crews, supra, which defined a risk inherent to a sport as one that could not be removed without altering the fundamental nature of the sport. Because softball players could be required to wear helmets without altering the way that softball is played, guidance from Crews seemingly suggested that the “no duty rule” would not apply in Craig. Rather than adopt the Crews approach, the Craig Court looked solely to the mechanism of injury instead of the feasibility of minimizing the risk. Craig provides favorable precedential guidance for defendants in cases involving injuries that result from sports and recreational fitness activities. Defendants should strive to establish that a plaintiff’s injury resulted from risks inherent to the sport or activity at the pleadings stage of litigation, even if a plaintiff alleges that additional regulations would have minimized consequences of the risk. The attorneys at Cipriani & Werner are available to assist you with any No Duty Rule claim you may have.

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October 2008
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