The Indiana Supreme Court has given the state a new approach for determining liability in sports injury cases. Whereas liability in such cases had previously focused on the conduct of the plaintiffs (i.e., the injured party), in Pfenning v. Lineman the court ruled that it is the actions of the defendant that are paramount.
More specifically, the Court stated that:
We hold that, in negligence claims against a participant in a sports activity, if the conduct of such participant is within the range of ordinary behavior of participants in the sport, the conduct is reasonable as a matter of law and does not constitute a breach of duty.
The ramifications are significant. First, Pfenning has removed “primary assumption of risk” from the equation, shifting the focus from the risks assumed by the injured plaintiff, to the reasonableness of the defendant tortfeasor’s conduct. This eliminates all discussion concerning legal duty, and puts the focus on whether the defendant committed any acts of negligence through his or her participation in the sporting activity. Changing the analysis from a duty question to a negligence question may also open the door for claims against sporting facilities or equipment manufactures that previously were protected from claims by the primary assumption of risk doctrine. It will take time to sort out how much change Pfenning actually brings to this area of law.
In sum, Pfenning does serve to clear up a confusing and increasingly untenable series of cases governing sports injury cases. Shifting the focus to the defendant to determine if the conduct falls within the range of ordinary behavior of participants in the sport makes the legal analysis much cleaner. It also opens up the ability to argue the circumstances surrounding the injury and the conduct of the defendant. Additionally, it prevents property owners and equipment manufacturers from latching on to arguments in which they claim no duty or responsibility, thus shielding them from liability. It will be interesting