When is a coach liable for the injuries of their athlete?

Davenport v. Farrow [2010] EWHC 550 (QB)

Read the full case here (http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2010/550.html&query=davenport&method=boolean)

The case concerns a claim by Richard Davenport (24yr old GB track athlete) against his former coach David Farrow (a top-level UK Athletics L4 coach). Davenport claimed damages for personal injury, consequential loss and damage caused by Farrow’s:

  • Negligence
  • and/ or breach of contract
  • and/ or breach of statutory duty

The personal injuries alleged were stress fractures of the spine (bilateral spondyloses at L5) which prevented him from training or competing from 2005-2007. Essentially the claim turned on when these fractures occurred – during an intensive training camp as alleged by the claimant, in which case, issues arose as to what if any steps should have been taken to investigate and/or manage them; or prior to 2001 as alleged by the defendant in which case, no duty would arise and the claim would fail.

Although both parties called expert medical witnesses in support of their case, it was impossible to state with any certainty when the injury occurred and the nature of the evidence was that both conclusions could be supported by the symptoms described.

The Court however concluded that it was more than likely that the stress fractures occurred at an earlier stage than Oct/Nov 2004, as Davenport had claimed. Mr Justice Owen gave the following reasons in support of this finding:

  • The claimant could not describe with any clarity when the symptoms came on, despite detailed and accurate records being kept of his high-performance training [58]
  • The level and intensity of the training camp in 2004 was not markedly different from the previous year’s training and was considered to be an acceptable practice for an athlete of Davenport’s ability and aspiration [60]. This was important as Farrow was a volunteer coach and designed and managed the training regime.
  • During 2004, Davenport was treated for a number of leg injuries, in South Africa, the UK and at competitions and despite referrals to a number of independent medical professionals, no complaint was made about any back injury [60-65]
  • While the claimant suggested that Davenport thought that the claimant lacked motivation, had an attitude problem and was lazy [32], and as such did not take his complaints seriously, an independent witness gave evidence that the claimant’s parents shared Farrow’s view [66].
  • If an athlete had been suffering from acute spondyloyses in Oct / Nov 2004, he would not have been able to have continued to have trained at the level and intensity that he was running at [67]

Given these conclusions, the claim failed.

 Arguably though, the most interesting part of the judgment was in an area not explored in any real depth by the Court, namely the role of a High Performance coach and the dynamics of that coach-athlete relationship. On 11th January 2004, Davenport and Farrow formalised their coaching relationship by a written contract [7]:

4. THE COACH/MANAGER’S OBLIGATIONS

4.1 The Coach/Manager shall provide coaching and advice to the Athlete (retaining the right to coach other Athletes). Such coaching is to include advice on fitness, health, diet and training schedules, strength and track training schedules, mobility work, injury prevention and rehabilitation, race tactics and strategy, advice on a programme of events to participate in, to accompany the Athlete to events and make himself available to the Athlete at all reasonable time and upon reasonable notice for the purposes of consultation and advice pertaining to the Athlete’s career, both competitive and commercial.

5. PERFORMANCE, FITNESS AND INJURIES

5.1 The Athlete undertakes that other than pursuant to his/her obligations under this Agreement he/she shall not during the term of this Agreement participate in any professional or other sporting activity or practice that may endanger his/her fitness or ability to compete without the prior permission of the Coach/Manager.

5.2 The Athlete undertakes that he/she shall at all times during the Term compete to the very best of his/her ability and he/she shall make all reasonable endeavours to maintain his/her form and health so as to be available for regular competition.

6. THE ATHLETE’S OBLIGATIONS 

6.1 The Athlete will, during the Term but subject to the Athlete’s obligations in his/her education:

(a) make himself/herself available for all competitions and for training and for other duties … as and when required by the Coach/Manager … unless prevented from doing so by his/her obligations under any agreement relating to his/her participation in an international team or by illness, injury or accident or other cause which the Coach/Manager agrees so prevents him.”

What was left unanswered was whether the fact that there was a written contract increased a coach’s obligations towards their athlete? Or was it simply a good practice management of everyone’s expectations?

Farrow also deterred his athletes from playing other sports because of the potential injury risks these activities represented [5] and at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/4775917/Schools-Sport-Contact-games-taking-toll-on-athletes-says-coach.html. Did he have a point? Or should athletes only specialise much later in their careers? Indeed can athletes gain additional skills and experience from taking part in unrelated activities?

The final area of contention related to the degree of control a coach should have over an athlete. Although a number of other athletes also gave evidence though to suggest that they did not agree that Davenport was unduly domineering or imposed unreasonable demands given the level of commitment to their sport that was expected of them, in the Court case [27], it was suggested by the claimant and another former Farrow Protégé (Emily Pidgeon) that Davenport was:

“a forceful and controlling personality who demanded a high level of control over the young athletes whom he coached. He gave evidence that the defendant wanted a say in all aspects of his life. The defendant would telephone on an almost daily basis, and would question his mother about what she was feeding him, wanting to control his diet. As he grew older the defendant would check on what he was doing outside training, wanting to know if he had gone out, and whether he had got back at a reasonable time. The claimant’s evidence was supported by that given by his mother who said that as the years went by, the nature of her contact with the defendant changed from brief discussions to detailed inquisitions into the claimant’s routine outside training. Although she found it surprising, she accepted that that was how professional coaches operated.”

So what control should a coach exert over an athlete? And how would this relationship affect liability?

POSTSCRIPT

Richard Davenport has now re-recorded his personal best at an athletics meet in the summer: http://www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/news/Davenport-races-fantastic-PB/article-2361854-detail/article.html

In 2007, David Farrow was stripped of his UKA coaching licence for five years following an alleged abuse of trust with a senior athlete he was coaching: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/athletics/2309581/Coach-guilty-of-abuse.html

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About Kris

Associate Professor in Sports Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach

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