A leading sports lawyer has warned of the “significant hurdles” a group of former rugby league players will need to overcome to mount a successful legal challenge against the sport’s authorities over a failure to protect them against neurodegenerative disease – while admitting that the game may struggle to survive if the challenges succeed.
Up to 10 retired players are understood to have approached Rylands Law, the firm that has launched action on behalf of a number of former rugby union players diagnosed with brain injuries, including the former World Cup winner, Steve Thompson. Some of the league players in question, who the Guardian understands have been retired from the sport for a number of years, are believed to be showing signs of dementia.
Richard Cramer, of Front Row Legal in Leeds, told the Guardian that there are numerous obstacles to clear before it can be proved the sport has acted in a negligent manner towards its players. “It’s certainly not going to be an easy case: there are significant hurdles for the claimants to overcome, but it’s not insurmountable,” Cramer said.
“The most obvious defence would be ‘Volenti non fit injuria’, which means that when a player goes out on the field, they’re aware of the physical nature of the sport they’re playing and they consent to playing with the risks associated to it. But if there is medical evidence to show these issues and injuries have been caused by playing the game, that’s something that cannot be ignored.”
Cramer warned that it is by no means a straightforward decision if the action reaches the courts. “There is no clear-cut favourite here; I can certainly see it from the claimants’ point of view,” he said. “The RFL have treated concussion a lot more seriously over the last few years, but the real test is whether any governing body in any sport were always aware of the risks associated with head injuries.
“If they chose to ignore them at any stage, there’s a duty of care issue there for sure. This is a very real issue, and while any challenge will be vigorously defended by the authorities, if it can be proven that there has been some sort of negligence, there is certainly a chance the claims could succeed.”
Cramer believes that any successful challenge could produce significant payouts for a sport which is already struggling financially, and as such, could be catastrophic. “It may not be able to survive claims of this nature, because it can run into thousands and thousands of pounds,” he said. “This isn’t good news financially for the sport and could be the final straw, but it clearly can’t be brushed aside because of the issues facing the players.” The RFL said: “The RFL are noting and monitoring developments, but have received no formal contact.”
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