Ice skating by its very nature is dangerous. Simply because an ice skating accident happened does not mean a lawsuit will be successful. However, there are some circumstances in which the owner of an ice skating rink or another person might be deemed legally responsible for an ice skating accident. This article discusses those circumstances, along with the applicable legal theories and potential defenses that might be raised.
Operators of ice skating rinks have a duty to keep the ice skating rink safe for patrons, including the general maintenance of the equipment and premises. Failure to meet these obligations can make the operator liable for negligence. However, the operator is not under a duty to prevent all possible accidents, especially considering the inherent danger of ice skating.
The operator must take steps to prevent or fix dangerous conditions or situations that the operator knows or should know about. Posting notices or other warnings typically is not enough to fulfill the operator’s duty.
For example, an operator should generally have staff on hand to kick out drunk and other reckless or careless skaters and to identify potentially dangerous flaws in (or debris on) the ice. However, if an injury is caused by a skater that suddenly becomes erratic or a flaw in the ice that suddenly appears (i.e. the operator/staff does not have a reasonable amount of time to discover and fix the situation) an operator will not be held liable.
Aside from an employee’s failure to identify and remedy a risk, an operator will also be held liable for any injuries caused directly by an employee’s negligence. For example, if an employee’s careless skating while tending to one patron causes another patron an injury, the operator can be held liable. Note that an operator will generally not be held liable for injuries an employee intentionally causes or for injuries caused when the employee was either off duty or not acting within the scope of employment. In that type of case, the plaintiff must sue the employee directly.
Other skaters could also be held liable under a negligence or intentional tort theory if they were responsible for injuring the plaintiff. For an intentional tort case to succeed, the defendant must have intended to cause the plaintiff some kind of harm.
For example, intentionally pushing someone from behind could lead to a battery case. For a successful negligence case, the defendant must have been behaving in a manner that was atypical for an ice skating rink, such as skating aggressively and erratically against the flow of the other skaters. However, simply because a defendant, otherwise skating in a safe and considerate manner, loses her balance and crashes in to someone else does not necessarily make that defendant liable for negligence. As discussed immediately below, anyone who ice skates is inherently accepting certain risks.
Under the doctrine of “assumption of the risk,” a plaintiff will lose the case if the defendant can prove the plaintiff knowingly exposed himself to the possibility of the injury before it occurred.
Anyone who ice skates assumes the risk of a certain amount of slipping, falling, bumping into other ice skaters and the various other likely results of attempting to glide across a hard, frozen surface on thin metal blades.
However, assumption of the risk cannot be applied to every ice skating injury. A reasonable ice skater does not assume that an operator will fail to take reasonable measures to prevent an injury or that another skater will behave in an unreasonable manner. Generally, if the assumption of the risk doctrine applies, the defendant will win the case outright.
A similar defense is contributory or comparative negligence. Essentially, if a plaintiff was negligent in a way that contributed to the injury, the defendant will have the amount of damages he or she owes reduced or eliminated entirely. For example, an operator may have negligently allowed a flaw to remain on the ice, but the plaintiff may have been trying to skate far beyond his abilities when he slipped on the flaw. If a jury finds the operator 60% responsible and the plaintiff 40% responsible, the plaintiff will only be awarded 60% of the final damages. In a few states, if the plaintiff is found to be more than 50% responsible for the injury, he won’t receive any damages at all.