The 2012 Northern Irish case of Morrow v Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council  NIQB 50 serves as an important reminder of the inherent risks in sporting activity. Injuries can, and often do, occur, however, the law will not always easily sanction compensation.
Billy Morrow was a member of a leisure centre in Dungannon, which had an area complete with cardiovascular machines (the ‘CV area’), and another with fixed weight machines and free weights (the ‘FW area’). Upon joining the leisure centre, Morrow was given a medical assessment and an introduction to the CV area by, fitness instructor, Mr Taffee.
After using the CV area for three months, Morrow began to attend the FW area three to five times per week. On the day of the accident, Taffee directed him to use the leg squat machine in the FW area. Morrow started squatting 30kg, moved up to 60kg, and then finally 100kg.
Morrow said that he performed one repetition at 100 kg and was ‘egged on’ by Taffee to do a second, and a third. On the third repetition, Morrow said he heard his neck crack. He suffered a fractured bone in his neck and raised an action for damages against the leisure centre owners.
The main dispute revolved around whether or not Morrow had received a proper introduction and supervision in the FW area. Morrow claimed that he had not received proper instruction, that he was encouraged to lift too much weight, and that there was a failure to identify the risk of injury to him. His expert maintained that inadequate instruction was provided, and that an injury of this kind must have been caused by poor technique, which Taffee should have noticed and corrected.
However, Taffee claimed that he had given Morrow an introduction to the FW area and had provided advice on technique, posture, breathing and appropriate weight levels. He also told the court that he had seen Morrow lifting 100 kg on previous occasions. Another expert noted that squats were a common exercise where novices often used poor technique. The expert asserted that the injury was extremely uncommon in weightlifters and believed it to have been an unfortunate accident.
The Court noted that all sporting activity involves risk. The standard of care for those providing leisure facilities was that owed by any occupier. In determining if the standard of care had been reached by the leisure centre, the court considered:
- The circumstances, including the sporting object.
- The demands made on the participant.
- The inherent dangers of the exercise, its rules, conventions and customs.
- The standards, skills and judgment of the participant.
- The standards, skills and judgment of the defendant in instructing, monitoring and supervising.
In this case, the fitness instructor was obliged to provide proper instruction, supervision and warning. The Court held that Morrow had been lifting weights in a safe environment that was properly organised, with proper instruction and monitoring by an experienced and trained instructor. The injury had occurred in the course of an exercise that carries a measure of risk and was merely an accident. The Court held that Morrow was no novice and would have been well aware of these risks. As such, the leisure centre had not been negligent and no blame for the accident was attached to them.
This case serves as a useful reminder that sporting activity – and physical activity, in general – involves a level of risk that all participants must accept. Some accidents can happen without anyone being at fault – as was the outcome in this case, where the law did not allow the recovery of damages.