In March of this year Mark Chapman, 20, became the first football player to be jailed for an on-field tackle. Chapman’s horror challenge broke the leg of fellow Sunday League player Terry Johnson, ending the 26-year-old’s chances of ever playing football again.
Chapman admitted Grievous Bodily Harm at Warwick Crown Court and was sentenced to a six month term in a decision that will have significant implications for professional and semi-professional sport.
Chapman tackled studs-first using a stamping motion with a raised right foot. Johnson needed reconstructive surgery, a skin graft and a steel rod in his leg to hold together the bone pieces. Johnson will never play again.
Chapman’s defence team attempted to draw a comparison to Ryan Shawcross’ tackle on Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey in which Ramsey suffered a double leg break.
At the trial Judge Robert Omre said: "This is a deliberate act, a premeditated act. A football match gives no-one any excuse to carry out wanton violence."
A player that is found criminally liable for violent conduct in sport will inevitably be liable in civil proceedings and face a damages award for Trespass to the Person and Battery. Players owe a duty to teammates and opponents to exercise reasonable care to ensure the safety of fellow players. An injured party can sue for compensation for the injuries suffered even without any criminal proceedings.
In 1998 Kevin Gray, the Huddersfield Town player, broke the leg of Bradford’s Gordon Watson in a tackle. The judge ruled that a reasonable professional player would have realised that the tackle carried with it a significant risk of serious injury and awarded Watson substantial damages for pain suffered, loss of amenity and loss of wages both past and future.
A club is often vicariously liable for the torts of players whose wrongful conduct could fairly and properly be regarded as done whilst acting in the ordinary course of the player-employee’s employment. The employer is often in better position to pay any compensation as it may have more money or better insurance.
In 2008 an assault by a semi-professional rugby union player on an opponent during a match was held so closely connected with his employment that it was fair and just to hold the club vicariously liable for injury to the opponent at the Court of Appeal. Redruth RFC was found liable and the courts now recognise the concept of vicarious liability for both professional and semi-professional sport.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has often claimed that his side are insufficiently protected and his players are ‘victims’ of deliberate brutality by opponents. The Chapman ruling may deter this kind of behaviour and give respite to the Arsenal boss. Others will not be sitting so comfortably.