Fulham Football Club has won a High Court challenge against a judge’s ruling that it was liable for a youth player’s tackle on an opponent which allegedly led to the end of his professional career.
The incident occurred in an under-18s game between Fulham and Swansea City Football Club at Motspur Park, south-west London, on December 10 2016.
Towards the end of the first half of the match, Fulham midfielder Jayden Harris tackled Jordan Jones which resulted in the Swansea player suffering a serious injury to his right ankle.
Mr Jones later brought a damages claim against Fulham, arguing that the tackle amounted to assault or negligence and that, as Mr Harris’s employer, the club was vicariously liable for his actions.
In October last year a judge dismissed the assault claim but concluded that the tackle was a breach of Mr Harris’s “duty to take the reasonable care for another player’s safety that was appropriate in all the circumstances of a professional game of football”.
He ruled that Mr Harris was guilty of negligence, making his club vicariously liable for the injury to Mr Jones and its consequences.
Fulham appealed against the ruling on four grounds at a hearing in April this year, and a High Court judge overturned the original decision in a judgment published on Wednesday and said a new trial should take place.
The club argued that the first judge failed to apply a legal test over the standard for liability for personal injury claims in the professional sports context.
This requires the consideration of whether a defendant breached football’s “laws of the game”, followed by a determination of whether there was negligence – which is set at a “materially higher standard” than in other personal injury claims.
Fulham also argued the judge failed to give “adequate reasons” why he rejected the evidence of its expert witness, and was in error by not taking into account the context of Mr Harris’s tackle and “the realities of the playing culture of professional football, which is a fast-paced, competitive game necessarily involving physical contact”.
The judge also failed to take into account other evidence, such as the fact that the match referee did not issue a yellow or red card over the tackle, the club argued.
In the ruling on Wednesday, Mr Justice Lane said Fulham had succeeded on all its grounds of appeal, and that the previous judgment should be set aside.
He concluded that “by closely aligning serious foul play in the laws of the game with actionable negligence” the judge “wrongly reduced the ambit of the inquiry required in order to answer the question of whether, in all the circumstances, Mr Harris’s tackle was not only a breach of the rules of game but negligent”.
Mr Justice Lane said it “matters very much” whether or not the tackle was made in “a fast-moving, heat-of-the-moment” context where Mr Harris did not intend to cause injury.
He added that the judge “fell into error in his treatment of the expert evidence” and that his ruling was in error where it “purports to set a standard for reckless or quasi-reckless behaviour in the context of professional football, which is far below what is needed to establish such liability”.
The judge also “erred in law in affording no weight at all to the fact that the referee did not award a foul”, Mr Justice Lane said.
Following Wednesday’s judgment, Matthew Harpin, partner at law firm Browne Jacobson, who acted for Fulham, said: “This is a really significant decision dealing with the circumstances in which a court may reach a finding of civil liability following an allegedly dangerous or reckless tackle in a competitive game of football.
“We are delighted that the judge found in Fulham’s favour on all four of our grounds of appeal and agreed that civil liability must be a rare finding in this arena.”