Injuries are common enough in sport and recreational activities to be considered an obvious risk to participants. When such injuries occur, it is natural to wonder whether event organisers are responsible and legally liable for the harm suffered. A recent judgment handed down by the High Court dealt with exactly that issue.
Tapp v Australian Bushmen’s Campdraft & Rodeo Association Limited (The Association) involved a uniquely Australian sport known as campdrafting, which involves a horse and rider working cattle. The appellant, Ms Tapp, competed at an event conducted at a campdrafting arena and organised by the respondent Association.
The evidence indicated that most campdrafting events start and end without any rider falling from their horse. Ms Tapp had competed earlier that day in the arena, like many others, without incident. However, as the event ran into the evening, several riders fell from their horses. The event organisers were made aware of concerns relating to the state of the arena surface, particularly from one ‘very, very experienced horseman and campdrafter.’ However, they responded to the effect that the show must go on out of fairness to the competitors, and that the competitors must ‘ride to the condition of the ground’. An announcement was made over a loudspeaker that the riders could have a refund if they chose not to compete.
Tragically, when it was her turn to compete, Ms Tapp’s horse fell, and she suffered a catastrophic spinal injury. The event was then stopped.
The legal issues
The task for the High Court was to determine whether the Association was negligent in failing to take precautions against a risk of harm. Courts must follow several complicated steps in answering that question, however, the most important steps emphasised by the High Court in this case are outlined below.
- What was the relevant risk of harm?
After lengthy discussion of the case law in this area, the majority characterised the risk as the ‘substantially elevated risk of physical injury by falling from a horse that slipped by reason of the deterioration of the surface of the arena’.
- Was the Association negligent in failing to take precautions against that risk?
Having considered the relevant facts, the majority found that:
a. The relevant risk was substantially increased so that it was reasonably expected.
b. The likely seriousness of the harm if the risk occurred was potentially catastrophic.
c. To avoid the risk of harm, the Association only had to stop the event to inspect the arena and consider the safety of its surface until it was satisfied that the ground was reasonably safe.
d. The matters above were not more important than continuing the event for the benefit of the previous contestants (i.e. continuing the event ensured that contestants who had already competed on worse ground were not at a competitive disadvantage).
Therefore, the majority found that the Association breached its duty of care by failing to take precautions against that risk. In other words, it was accepted that the Association had breached its duty of care. However, if the Association could establish that the risk was obvious to Ms Tapp it could avoid liability for negligence.
- Was the risk obvious to a reasonable person in the position of Ms Tapp?
The Court held that the risk was not an obvious one in the circumstances for three reasons:
a. Ms Tapp did not have the opportunity to examine the condition of the ground, being a competitor.
b. Ms Tapp had already competed multiple times earlier in the day, as had her sister and father, and was unaware of the four falls prior to her own.
c. It was reasonable for Ms Tapp, especially as she was only 19 years old, to rely on the event organisers to make an appropriate decision about the surface.
Having proved all other elements of negligence, therefore, the Association was liable for Ms Tapp’s injuries and was ordered to pay $6,750,000 to Ms Tapp, excluding her legal costs.
How can we help?
The rules relating to sporting and recreational injuries are complicated and vary according to where injury is incurred , as well as where the relevant negligent conduct is said to have occurred. With the return of many large-scale events post-COVID-19 lockdowns, this High Court case is a timely reminder to both event organisers and participants to be aware of their obligations and rights.
Fortunately, the team at Snedden Hall & Gallop have a wealth of experience in this area and can help if you are concerned about your rights and obligations.
Contact the team here at Snedden Hall & Gallop to see how we can help you on 02 6285 8000 or by email.