Although Tottenham’s website thankfully confirms that Hugo Lloris has been given the all-clear following a precautionary CT scan, if the outcome had been more tragic, Tottenham, the FA and the Premier League could all have been sued in negligence law, and most likely would have lost.
This article will review what liability exists, why, and what steps need to urgently be taken in order to manage this risk.
Tottenham Hotspur played Everton in a Barclays Premier League match on the weekend. Near the end of the game (77th minute according to BBC live text website), the French international goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris suffered a head injury and brief unconsciousness following a collision with Romelu Lukaku’s knee in a challenge.
After a brief delay for treatment, Lloris was not substituted and played out the remaining 15mins of the match.
SO WHAT NEGLIGENCE LIABILITY EXISTED?
While the challenge between Lukaku and Lloris was not negligent, the actions by the team and authorities afterwards could create a liability along similar lines to the English boxing case of Watson v. British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC)  EWCA Civ 2116. In that case, the governing body of boxing (the BBBC) were found liable for failing to implement what were known medical protocols to mitigate the risks of brain damage.
What is interesting is that despite the time-gap and the obvious differences between the two sports, there is a striking similarity between the two incidents:
|No player liability for the initial blow||Eubank punch||Lukaku challenge|
|No referee liability||Referee stopped fight correctly||Referee stopped game correctly|
|Rules of the game were followed||BBBC rules on medical treatment followed||At face value, FA [p.596] & Premier League [O.9] rules on medical treatment of head injuries followed as qualified medical personnel consulted|
|Medical professionals from outside the industry recommended more stringent rules||Neurosurgeons attacked the BBBC rules pre-watson incident||Stringent rules on concussion management recommended following NFL concussion suit, and other incidents particularly in Ice Hockey and Rugby|
If we adopt the same Watson-esque reasoning for Lloris, a number of parties could therefore potentially be liable in negligence for breaching their duty of care towards the goalkeeper:
The Medical Professionals from the Club, and/or the Manager
Tottenham have based their media defence on the fact that they followed the FA rule on Head Injuries :
“All Clubs shall ensure that any player in a league match having left the field with a head injury shall not be allowed to resume playing or training without the clearance of a qualified medical practitioner.”
Because a qualified medical practitioner from the club assessed Lloris pitch-side, Tottenham argued that they were fully compliant with the relevant rules; and at first glance, this view seems correct. The situation however changes with a closer, more detailed examination of the FA rules on medical treatment. The next page of the FA rules states that:
“Any player remaining immobile and unresponsive to verbal commands following a head injury will be regarded as being unconscious and treated in accordance with established principles for extrication and management of the unconscious player. There will be no return to play during that day……”
and further on that:
“A player may suffer a transient alteration of conscious level following a head injury. It should be noted that under these circumstances, “transient” may coincide with the period of time between the injury and the arrival of the medical attendant at the player’s side. On-pitch assessment will include Maddocks questions as well as demonstration of conjugate gaze, “normal” visual acuity and full visual fields to confrontation. The player will only be allowed to resume play if asymptomatic and with normal co-ordination…..If a deficit is observed the player must be immediately removed from the field of play and regarded as suffering from a concussive head injury. There will be no return to play that day.”
The 4th Consensus statement on concussion in sport (supported and endorsed by FIFA) similarly says,
“If any one or more of these [five] components are present [which includes loss of consciousness], a concussion should be suspected and the appropriate management strategy instituted.”
Given that it was widely reported in the media that Andre Villas-Boas (AVB) [the Tottenham Manager] admitted that:
“He [Lloris] doesn’t remember it so he lost consciousness. It was a big knock but he looked composed and ready to continue.”
This would seem to suggest that with either interpretation, by continuing to play Lloris, Tottenham was in violation of the FA rules. Either Lloris was briefly fully unconscious, in which case there should be no return to play, or he had an observable deficit (dizziness, memory loss etc) in which case he should not have returned to play.
The only justification for allowing Lloris continuing to play would be that the injury was transient. This is however a difficult medical decision that should be made solely by medical professionals, ideally in a quiet, non-pressurised environment. In a post-match interview with Sky however, Villas-Boas suggests (at 2m30 in) that:
“The medical department was giving me signs that the player couldn’t carry on, because he couldn’t remember where he was….but he was quite focused and determined to continue, so when you see this kind of assertiveness it means he is able to carry on, and that is why it was my call to delay the substitution.”
Based on the mechanism of injury and his unconsciousness on the pitch, the evidence strongly suggests that Lloris sustained some type of concussion. Indeed his post-match rehabilitation would support this conclusion as it looks to be proceeding along the lines of a concussive injury (CT scan, medical assessment, rest). Given this, the Tottenham decision to allow Lloris to keep playing would seem contrary to the FA rules on Head Injuries and raises serious question marks over the influence of the medical staff in this decision-making process. Were they overruled by AVB? Or did the medical staff make this decision free from any managerial interference?
If the recommended solution was simple [removal of the player], would have comparatively little effect on the game [a substitute keeper was available and ready] and the risks of failing to do this were significant [death, or serious injury from second impact syndrome / Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)], then arguably if an injury had result, it would have been negligent not to have taken these steps.
The FA / Premier League Rules.
Even if we take the alternative superficial view of this incident (that Tottenham acted within and implemented the relevant FA / Premier League rules on Head Injuries), this is not sufficient to excuse their duty of care to the player. It could however be used as persuasive evidence that the Club had acted reasonably by taking appropriate advice and relying on the FA scientific experts to lay down appropriate medical rules (outside the competence of the club). Liability would then pass to the governing body / league for negligent rule-making.
Indeed, just as the Court of Appeal held in Watson that:
“The Judge held that it was the duty of the Board, and of those advising it on medical matters, to be prospective in their thinking and to seek competent advice as to how a recognised danger could best be combated. He held that he was left in no doubt that the Board was in breach of its duty in that it did not institute some such system or protocol as that which Mr Hamlyn was later to propose. He held that anyone with the appropriate expertise would have advised the adoption of such a system.” 
So this finding is equally instructive to this incident. It would be surprising if anybody in professional sport was not aware of the risks associated with concussion following protracted litigation in North America from both the NFL American Football players association, and NHL ice-hockey players, not to mention recent rugby incidents – most notably George Smith’s infamous return to the field following a heavy collision.
Could or should the FA have done more? Arguably yes. As regulators of the game, there needs to be a clearer stance taken as to how the rules should be applied, and whether in the first instance, they are actually strict enough. While there have recently been some clubs that display admirable restraint, for example Norwich’s substitution and treatment of Robert Snodgrass following a heavy collision with a defender, there have equally been occasions this season where concussed players have continued to play – indeed ironically, Lukaku himself was briefly knocked out during the Everton-West Ham game on September 21st. If the FA and Premier League are aware that players are not being substituted, then their continued tolerance of this practice must surely constitute tacit acceptance?
As Watson shows though, even full adherence to the FA rules may not act as a defence to a negligence claim if other sports or medical professionals implemented more stringent standards.
- For example, any ice-hockey player suspected of concussion in the NHL is removed from the bench to a quiet place so that a full Sports Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT2) test can be administered.
- Similarly, the NFL test for American footballers based on the SCAT test typically takes 8-12minutes to complete.
- Perhaps most tellingly though, Dr Barry O’Driscoll (formerly the IRB medical advisor) recently stated that “it’s ferocious out there…there is no test that you can do in five minutes that will show that a player is not concussed….to have this acceptable in rugby, what kind of message are we sending out?”
What is considered reasonable should therefore be judged in the context of safe practice recommended by the medical experts in the field, for example, adopting the 4th Consensus statement on concussion in sport, supported and endorsed by FIFA (amongst other signatories), or reviewing literature and protocols from North America where awareness of concussive injuries seems to be much better understood. It is not sufficient for The FA to argue that their rules on head injuries are the strictest that they have ever been, or that with FIFA F-MARC accreditation the medical facilities at St. George’s Park are world class, instead what is needed is a world-class implementation of safe, effective rule-making and sadly this weekend’s incident exposes the deficiencies in the current system.
This article would suggest four actions need to be taken urgently:
- The FA or League to impose disciplinary sanctions for clubs acting against the safety of a player – If no sanction exists for ignoring or misapplying the FA rules on Head injuries (or any other medical condition affecting the safety of participants), then medical staff and managers are not incentivised, beyond their own professional values, to make ‘correct’ or ‘safe’ decisions. What is instead needed is for the FA to implement fines or other disciplinary measures for a failure to follow agreed medical protocols. The FA (and clubs) have a duty of care to protect the safety of the players, and much as hard-helmets and ear-protection are mandatory and punishable by health & safety violations in the construction industry, so the FA need to implement a system of enforcement for the (mis)application of their rules.
- The FA or League to implement ‘medical suspensions’ akin to yellow and red cards. Just as players might receive suspensions following red cards, so automatic minimum medical suspensions could be triggered followed head injuries. If players, coaches and officials were not just educated about the risks of concussion and return-to-play protocols, but had to abide by minimum suspensions (for example, 5 days), then this would help to reinforce the potential seriousness of the injury. Clubs would of course be free to extend this recuperation as needed, but a minimum mandatory rest-period could also help change public perception that athletes were not being brave by continuing to play and wimps for being substituted, but rather that this decision was taken out of their hands by the governing body. A system of governing body / league ‘medical suspensions’ would also assist with epidemiology as it would make it easier to track repeated concussive injuries or identify particular high-risk athletes.
- The FA to review concussion best practice in other sports. Following the clear principle laid down by the Court of Appeal in Watson, the FA as the industry regulator has a duty of care to provide best medical practice, and continuously review these protocols in light of other sports or medical guidelines, with a view to making alterations to the current rules if necessary. [At the time of writing, this recommendation seems to already be in progress]
- Consider whether independent medical teams should have ultimate decision-making authority over clubs. Finally, to avoid any appearance of undue influence, conflict of interest or pressure being exerted on club medical staff (as was observable with Dr Wendy Chapman, the club doctor at the centre of the ‘Blood-gate’ scandal in rugby), it may be advisable for the FA to leave the decision over whether a player sustained a concussive injury, or other medical condition affecting the safety of a player, to an independent doctor available on the side-line. Of the four recommendations, this last point is however more controversial and would add an additional expense to games, particularly since the other three recommendations could equally be applied throughout the Football League structure comparatively easily.
Whether footballers are viewed as human beings, or as multi-million pound club assets, they deserve the protection and safety of the very best medical protocols, whether they want this protection (or in this incident, not). The injury to Lloris represents a warning to the FA that it is not just the professional football clubs that would face negligence liability, but rather the regulator would also be liable for a failure to act in the face of foreseeable injuries. Concussions may be comparatively invisible, but that doesn’t mean the regulator should be as well….