Had a school failed in its duties of reasonable care towards a pupil injured in a hockey match?

The Case

Megan Murray v Mark McCullough on behalf of Rainey Endowed School 2016 NIQB 52

The Issue

In their enthusiasm to take part, young people don’t always appreciate the risks inherent in a sport, leading to injury.

Here the court in Northern Ireland had to decide whether the school ought to have made the wearing of mouth guards mandatory after a fifteen year-old girl was struck in the mouth playing hockey.

The Facts

In December 2008, fifteen year-old Megan Murray was a skilled hockey player appearing in a match for her school, Rainey Endowed School against Friends School. She was not wearing a mouth guard. At some point during the match, she was struck in the mouth by a hockey stick, damaging her teeth and cutting her lip.

The court accepted that had a mouth guard been worn, damage to the teeth would have been prevented, and the cut would have been less severe.

Megan brought a case against the School, saying that they ought to have made the wearing of mouth guards mandatory; that she wasn’t sufficiently warned of the risks of not wearing one; and that her parents were not sufficiently warned, thus depriving them of the opportunity of persuading Megan to wear one.

The School accepted that they owed a duty of care to Megan, but argued that they had fulfilled it. Their “School Uniform Code” issued to pupils and parents recommended that shin guards and mouth guards were worn “as advised by the Hockey Federation.”

This reference was to the International Hockey Federation whose own rules also recommended, but did not make mandatory, the wearing of shin guards and mouth guards.

Reference was also made to a 2008 publication from the Association for Physical Education (“Safe Practice in Physical Education and School Sport”), which “highly recommended” the wearing of mouth guards, and said that staff should always seek to communicate their policies regarding the same to pupils and parents.

An expert for Megan tried to argue that “highly recommended” in this context meant mandatory. Megan also said that the wearing of shin guards was mandatory in the School, and therefore the same should have applied to mouth guards.

The Decision

The court found that the School had fulfilled their duties of reasonable care.

The duty of care was that which was reasonable in all the circumstances. The court accepted the evidence that the school had issued the Uniform Code with its recommendation to wear the mouth guard. It also found that the standard procedure at schools in Northern Ireland was for the use of mouth guards to be highly recommended, rather than mandatory.

It rejected the contention by the expert that “highly recommended” meant mandatory. As Justice Stephens said, “That is not the ordinary use of English language” and there was no compelling reason to interpret it in that way.

Further, the court accepted evidence from the School’s hockey teacher that Megan had been told several times in her first three years at school that she should wear a mouth guard to protect her teeth.

In coming to these conclusions, Justice Stephens paid particular attention to Megan’s age, and in particular, found she was able to understand and weigh the risks.

Finally, Megan’s mother had accepted she had received the Uniform Code and read it each time it was sent to her. Her parents knew the risks of her not wearing a mouth guard, and could have warned her.

Our view

This is a refreshing decision that indicates that people still have responsibility for their own personal safety when they take part in sporting activities.

The duty of a school in such circumstances is that of reasonable care. So long as they have followed common practice and can properly demonstrate that they have taken into account risks and warned parents and pupils accordingly, there may be a defence.

Much will depend on the circumstances of each case, however, and the age of the pupil involved. Where that pupil is younger, the standard of what is reasonable will understandably be much higher.

Read the full decision here.