The family of a schoolgirl from Queensland’s Somerset College has commenced legal action against her 13-year old classmate after she was allegedly struck by a ball during a school tennis lesson. According to a report in the Herald Sun, the tennis ball hit by student Julia Wright-Smith, struck Finley Enright-Burns in the eye, causing an injury for which she received medical treatment. Finley’s father filed a claim for damages on her behalf naming 13 year-old Julia as well as both Somerset College and the Jay Deacon’s Tennis School as defendants. Against the tennis school, the claim alleges that supervision provided for the lesson was inadequate and that the tennis school breached its duty of care by allowing the girls to stand too close together and hit more than one ball at a time. It also alleges that the tennis school was negligent in failing to provide the students with protective eyewear. The claim against Somerset College also alleges negligence.
The claim addressed to Julia Wright-Smith was received by her father who, according to the Herald Sun was “gobsmacked”. In an interview with the Courier-Mail, he reportedly described the situation as “bizarre ... beyond belief” and said “I couldn't believe it when I opened this legal letter addressed to my 13-year-old daughter.”
The litigious culture that this incident represents could potentially threaten the continuation of sporting activities in schools as the risk of being sued is likely to deter schools from offering activities that may result in injuries. An article in the Herald Sun has suggested that this process is already underway, reporting that “several Queensland schools have already banned activities including tiggy, red rover and cartwheels because of injury fears”.
As compensation law expert Mark O’Connor states in an article in the Brisbane Times, it can be difficult to succeed in a negligence action in circumstances like Finley’s. Given that there are inherent risks involved in sports, the law presumes tacit acceptance on the part of sporting participants (or consenting parents/guardians) of certain risks of injury. Nevertheless, the attention this case has drawn to the potential exposure of schools to injury compensation claims raises the issue of whether this risk should be more tightly controlled and if so, how far schools should go.
On the flip side, concern has been expressed by the High Court, according to lawyer Bill Potts (quoted in the Herald Sun), that cases of this nature propagate a ‘culture of blame’ and that individuals ought to accept greater responsibility for their own actions. The injury suffered in this case was undeniably unfortunate but the public policy implications of this type of litigation beg the questions of whether a law suit was really the answer.