Football is a fast-moving contact sport involving inevitable risk of injury and, if judges were to impose impossibly high standards of care on players, that would be the end of the sport. The High Court powerfully made that point in subjecting an allegedly negligent tackle during a professional game to intense analysis.
During the match, a player was tackled by an opponent, suffering an ankle injury that ended his career. The incident occurred in the full view of the qualified and Football Association-accredited referee, who did not blow his whistle for a foul. There was also no adverse reaction from spectators, players or coaching staff.
After the player launched a compensation claim against the opponent's club, a judge found that the tackle was negligent. Describing the tackle as a reckless manoeuvre, involving excessive force, he observed that it did not matter that the opponent had no intention to cause injury or that it could be said that the incident occurred in a fast-moving, heat-of-the-moment context.
Challenging that outcome, the club argued that the judge failed to take into account the realities of the playing culture of professional football. Instead, he analysed the tackle as if it had taken place in a vacuum, with the benefit of hindsight. He thereby subjected the opponent and his club to a counsel of perfection. Imposing such an onerous standard of care would mean that no player could ever make a tackle unless sure that he would make no contact with another player.
Upholding the club's appeal, the Court noted that, contrary to the judge's view, the context in which the tackle was made mattered very much. He erred in finding that certain breaches of the rules of the game were very likely to amount to negligence. By closely aligning serious foul play, as defined by the rules of the game, with the concept of negligence he applied the wrong legal test.
Forming his own view of a video of the incident, he failed adequately to explain why he rejected the evidence of the club's expert witness, an eminent former referee. He also erred in affording no weight to the fact that the match referee did not award a foul. Overall, he purported to set a standard for reckless or quasi-reckless behaviour in the context of professional football far below that which is needed to establish liability for negligence. The Court directed a fresh trial of the action.