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Nixon v. Clay

Supreme Court of Utah

July 11, 2019

Judd Nixon, Appellant,
v.
Edward Clay, Appellee.

          On Direct Appeal, Fourth District, Utah County The Honorable Derek P. Pullan No. 150401989

          Leonard E. McGee, Peter R. Mifflin, Sandy, for appellant.

          Sadé A. Turner, Karmen C. Schmid, Scarlet R. Smith, Salt Lake City, for appelle.

          Associate Chief Justice Lee authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.

          OPINION

          Lee Associate Chief Justice.

         ¶1 At the outset of the oral argument in our court in this case, counsel for the appellee presented a quote from the late Senator John McCain. The quote alludes to the sport of mixed martial arts as a "dangerous and brutal exercise," while then warning of a "sport, more vicious and cold-blooded, that takes place in Mormon meetinghouses across this great nation of ours"-"LDS Church Basketball." This quote, sadly, appears to be a matter of internet apocrypha. We can find it attributed to a McCain floor speech on various pages of the world-wide web, but no such quote appears in the pages of the Congressional Record. Yet the apocryphal quote conveys an accepted view of "church ball" among many who have experienced this phenomenon-an athletic competition acclaimed on some local t-shirts as "the brawl that begins with prayer."

         ¶2 At least one of the parties to this case seems to see it that way. Judd Nixon is the plaintiff in a tort suit that arose out of a basketball game at a meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nixon sought to recover damages from the player he viewed as responsible for his injuries-Edward Clay. The issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in adopting a "contact sports exception" in the law of torts. The district court held that "in bodily contact games . . . participants are liable for injuries in [a] tort action only if [their] conduct is such that it is either willful or with a reckless disregard for the safety of the other player." Applying this "contact sports exception" to the facts of this case, the district court determined that Nixon's injury arose out of conduct that was not willful or reckless but was inherent in the game of basketball. On that basis the district court held that Clay owed no duty to Nixon. And it granted summary judgment to Clay.

         ¶3 We affirm but on a slightly modified basis. We endorse the idea of an exception to liability arising out of sports injuries. But we do not think the exception should turn on the defendant's state of mind, or be limited just to contact sports. We instead hold that participants in any sport are not liable for injuries caused by their conduct if their conduct was inherent in the sport. Applying this exception to the facts of this case, we conclude that Clay's conduct was inherent in the game of basketball. And we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment on this basis.

         I

         ¶4 Judd Nixon and Edward Clay were playing on opposite teams in a church-sponsored recreational basketball game. Nixon dribbled the ball down the court to take a shot. Clay pursued Nixon to try to contest the shot. As Clay approached Nixon's right side he extended his right arm over Nixon's shoulder to reach for the ball. Nixon came to a "jump stop" at the foul line and began his shooting motion. When Nixon came to this sudden stop, Clay's arm made contact with Nixon's right shoulder. Nixon then felt his left knee pop. Both men fell to the ground.[1] The referee determined that the contact was not intentional and warranted only a common foul. Nixon unfortunately sustained a serious knee injury in the collision.

         ¶5 Three years later Nixon filed a complaint alleging that Clay's negligence caused his knee injury. Clay filed a motion for summary judgment two years into the litigation. Clay asked the district court to adopt a "contact sports exception" recognized in many jurisdictions. And he argued in the alternative that no jury could find that he acted negligently based on the undisputed facts.

         ¶6 The district court granted Clay's motion for summary judgment on both grounds. It adopted a "contact sports exception" that provides that participants in bodily contact sports are liable for injuries only when the injuries are the result of conduct that demonstrates a "willful" or "reckless disregard for the safety of the other player." Applying this test, the court first determined that basketball is a contact sport. Then it determined that Nixon's injury was not the result of "willful" or "reckless" conduct, but conduct inherent and foreseeable in the game of basketball. And it held that the contact sports exception thus shielded Clay from liability.

         ¶7 The court also applied the test articulated in B.R. ex rel. Jeffs v. West, 2012 UT 11, 275 P.3d 228. And it held, in the alternative, that no reasonable jury could find that Clay acted negligently.

         ¶8 Nixon now appeals, asking us to reverse the district court's ruling. He first contests the adoption of a contact sports exception. Second, he contends that the district court misapplied the summary judgment standard when it concluded that Clay's alleged "tackle" was common and foreseeable and that Clay accordingly owed Nixon no duty under Jeffs.

         II

         ¶9 We affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment.[2]But we do so on a somewhat modified basis. The "contact sports exception" endorsed by the district court (and followed in a majority of jurisdictions) provides that a "participant in a contact sport owes a duty [to a co-participant] only if his or her conduct is willful or done with reckless disregard for the safety of another player." To apply this exception, a court must pursue a two-step inquiry. First, the court asks whether the sport at issue is a contact sport. If so, the court must then consider whether the alleged tortfeasor's conduct was "willful or done with reckless disregard for the safety of another player." If the alleged tortfeasor did not act willfully or recklessly he "owes no duty under a standard of ordinary negligence."

         ¶10 We affirm the establishment of an exception to tort liability for injuries arising out of sports. But we do not fully embrace the majority rule. We instead establish a simpler framework that avoids the complicated line-drawing problems associated with the assessment of a tortfeasor's state of mind and with the decision on whether a sport qualifies as a contact sport. We instead hold that participants in sports generally have no duty to avoid conduct that is inherent in the sport. And we clarify that the tortfeasor's state of mind may be relevant, but is not a necessary element of the exception.

         ¶11 Though we reject the specific exception adopted by the district court, we nonetheless affirm its grant of summary judgment. It is undisputed that Nixon was injured when Clay "reached in" and "swiped at the basketball," incidentally making contact with Nixon's shoulder. And the undisputed evidence (including photos of the foul) shows that these actions are inherent in the game of basketball. Applying the exception we adopt today to the undisputed facts, we hold that Clay had no duty to avoid the contact that allegedly caused Nixon's injury. And we affirm on that basis.

         ¶12 In the paragraphs below we first describe the basis for our conclusion that voluntary participants in sports owe no duty to avoid contact that is inherent in the activity. We explain our decision to depart from the majority rule and offer some commentary aimed at aiding our courts in the application of our holding. Second, we apply our standard to the undisputed facts of this case. We affirm the grant of summary judgment on the ground that it is undisputed that Nixon's injury arose out of conduct inherent in the game of basketball.

         A

         ¶13 Our cases have established a framework for the establishment of a duty of care in the law of torts. We have announced a "general rule" that "we all have a duty to exercise care when engaging in affirmative conduct that creates a risk of physical harm to others." B.R. ex rel. Jeffs v. West, 2012 UT 11, ¶ 21, 275 P.3d 228. And we have also explained that "[t]here are exceptions to the rule . . . in categories of cases implicating unique policy concerns that justify eliminating the duty of care for a class of defendants." Id. In deciding whether to endorse an exception, we have looked to certain "'minus' factors" that may weigh against the imposition of a duty of care. Id. Those factors include "the foreseeability or likelihood of injury," "public policy as to which party can ...


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