Utah Supreme Court rules on a case of LDS ward basketball and injuries in sports

SALT LAKE CITY — The notoriously rough n’ tumble basketball games that take place in meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have become a cultural joke in Utah, so much so that the state’s top court has now acknowledged it.

“An athletic competition acclaimed on some local t-shirts as ‘the brawl that begins with prayer,'” Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee wrote.

In an opinion published Saturday, the Utah Supreme Court ruled on a personal injury case involving an LDS ward basketball game and expanded the legal exception for liability in sports. The case will have impact on many other athletic events across the state.

“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,” the Court declared in a unanimous ruling.

The case centers around an injury Judd Nixon suffered in a 2012 church-sponsored basketball game at an LDS stake center in Utah County. Nixon and Edward Clay were playing against each other.

“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,” Justice Lee wrote. “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.”

Nixon eventually sued Clay, alleging his negligence caused the injury. A Provo court granted Clay’s request to dismiss the case, declaring that basketball is a “contact sport.” It then declared that Nixon’s injury was not the result of willful or reckless behavior, but inherent with basketball, Justice Lee wrote.

The Utah Supreme Court sided with Clay and upheld the personal injury lawsuit’s dismissal. But the Court took it further, essentially ruling that there is risk of injury in all sports — not just sports where contact takes place.

“The game of tennis does not involve frequent bodily contact among participants in the sport. For that reason this sport conceivably might not qualify as a ‘contact sport.’ But there are obvious risks of injurious contact in tennis. Players may anticipate getting hit with a tennis ball or colliding with a teammate during a doubles match. And tennis players in these situations should be exposed to no more liability for injuries caused by their contact than a basketball player who collided with another player during a game,” Justice Lee wrote.

Nixon’s attorney was out of town and did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In a statement, Clay’s attorneys Sadé Turner, Karmen Schmid and Scarlet Smith said he had been “vindicated.”

“The Utah Supreme Court’s decision is a win for everyone. The decision means Utahns can play hard at the sports they love without worrying about a potential lawsuit for injuries sustained in competition. We are very pleased the Court offered such clear and simple direction,” Turner wrote.

Read the Utah Supreme Court’s ruling here:

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