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School not liable for hockey injury.

Facts

The plaintiff, Mr Johnson, was a teacher at Fisher Branch Collegiate located in the Lakeshore School Division No. 23 ("the school"). Each year during Spirit Week, the school held a staff versus students hockey game. Mr Johnson had participated in this game for several years. Although there were no formal written rules, it appears that everyone understood the game was played under recreational hockey rules. These rules meant no slap shots and no body checking, although there was still a certain amount of bodily contact. Mr Johnson testified that he was aware of the rules and of the risk of injury.

Towards the end of the third period, a student player named Garrette Webb collided with Mr Johnson, causing his back to bend over the boards, while his skates remained on the ice, trapped by Webb's much bigger and heavier body. This resulted in serious injury to Mr Johnson. Witness descriptions of the collision varied widely.

Mr Johnson stated that he had been covering for his defenceman on the spectators' side of the arena near the students' blue line. The puck came outside the blue line, and he proceeded to travel with the puck across the ice towards the bench side to give his players the chance to clear the zone. As he approached the bench, he shot the puck into the student zone. He was then hit by Mr Webb, who was moving fast and had his hands in front of his body in a cross-checking position. Mr Johnson said this was the most violent hit he had ever experienced.

Several spectators at the game described the incident in different ways. Mr Vandersteen, who was himself an experienced hockey player and coach, stated what while Mr Johnson was approaching the bench to get the puck, Mr Webb was also skating towards the puck from a different angle. He described the hit as "terrible", and opined that Mr Webb could have avoided it since he was not going for the puck, whereas Mr Johnson was not expecting to be hit, and therefore could not have avoided the hit. another spectator believed Mr Johnson was hit as he was awaiting a pass. A third spectator stated that Mr Johnson and Mr Webb had both been chasing the puck and became entangled and lost their balance approximately four or five feet from the boards. Their momentum carried them into the boards.

Mr Webb stated that he and Mr Johnson had been chasing the puck, and that he had placed his right foot around Mr Johnson's front in an effort to get the puck. As he did this, they became entangled so that neither could turn. Their momentum carried them into the boards, where Mr Johnson hit the boards with his side and then twisted backwards. Mr Webb denied any intention to body check Mr Johnson, who was one of his favourite teachers. The referee for the game recalled that this was to be a no-contact game, which meant no intentional hitting or slapshots. He admitted there was always some contact in a no-contact game, and said this game had been a little "chippy". However, he had not received any complaints from the participants; he too had witnessed the hit; he stated that the two players had been skating towards the puck from different angles. As they reached the puck, they collided and their momentum carried them into the boards. He was satisfied that Mr Webb had been playing the puck, and not the man, when the collision occurred. He did not call a penalty.

Cause of Action

Mr Johnson commenced action against Mr Webb and against the school for his injuries

Decision

The Court dismissed the claim against both Mr Webb and the school.

Reasons

After reviewing the conflicting witness evidence as to the circumstances of the check, the Court concluded that Mr Johnson had not proven that the student intended to body check him. It also found that Mr Webb had not been careless or reckless, and that his conduct did not fall beneath that expected of a reasonable competitor.

The Court accepted Mr Johnson's argument that the hockey game was an activity for which the school was responsible, notwithstanding that the game occurred at night and off the school premises. It also accepted that the success of Sprit Week depended on teacher involvement, and that teachers felt compelled to participate. This meant that there was a master-servant relationship between the school and Mr Johnson, and the school was under a duty to take reasonable care for his safety and to avoid exposing him to unnecessary risk. There are three components to this duty to take reasonable care. The employer must:

* provide proper and suitable premises and appliances and maintain them in reasonably safe condition;

* provide and maintain a reasonably safe system of working; and

* provide effective supervision, including warning and instruction in circumstances of danger.

The Court then reviewed the circumstances of this game, and noted the following factors in arriving at its decision:

* Although there were no written rules, the participants were advised orally that it was no-contact, which meant no intentional hitting. The participants understood there could still be contact between players as, for example, when they go for the puck together. These risks are voluntarily assumed;

* Two qualified referees were hired;

* All of the players were fully equipped;

* Although the game was more intense towards the end, there was no indication that violence might occur; and

* Although there was a lot of hype to the student vs staff game, the game itself was not out of the ordinary.

The Court concluded that the school was not liable because it had taken reasonable care to ensure that the participants would be safe.

Johnson v. Webb [2002] M.J. No. 54 (Q.B.)
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Article Details
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Author:Doctor, Eleanor
Publication:LawNow
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Words:965
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