Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Nixon Offense: John McCain And Mormon Basketball

The Utah Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to a defendant sued for (basketball) court injuries. 

At the outset of the oral argument in our court in this case, counsel for the appellee presented a quote from the late Senator John McCain. The quote alludes to the sport of mixed martial arts as a “dangerous and brutal exercise,” while then warning of a “sport, more vicious and cold-blooded, that takes place in Mormon meetinghouses across this great nation of ours”—“LDS Church Basketball.” This quote, sadly, appears to be a matter of internet apocrypha. We can find it attributed to a McCain floor speech on various pages of the world-wide web, but no such quote appears in the pages of the Congressional Record. Yet the apocryphal quote conveys an accepted view of “church ball” among many who have experienced this phenomenon—an athletic competition acclaimed on some local t-shirts as “the brawl that begins with prayer.”

At least one of the parties to this case seems to see it that way. Judd Nixon is the plaintiff in a tort suit that arose out of a basketball game at a meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nixon sought to recover damages from the player he viewed as responsible for his injuries—Edward Clay. The issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in adopting a “contact sports exception” in the law of torts. The district court held that “in bodily contact games . . . participants are liable for injuries in [a] tort action only if [their] conduct is such that it is either willful or with a reckless disregard for the safety of the other player.” Applying this “contact sports exception” to the facts of this case, the district court determined that Nixon’s injury arose out of conduct that was not willful or reckless but was inherent in the game of basketball. On that basis the district court held that Clay owed no duty to Nixon. And it granted summary judgment to Clay.

We affirm but on a slightly modified basis. 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. Applying this exception to the facts of this case, we conclude that Clay’s conduct was inherent in the game of basketball. And we affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment on this basis.

The incident

Judd Nixon and Edward Clay were playing on opposite teams in a church-sponsored recreational basketball game. 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.

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.

And sued.

Based on the court's description, I'd venture that then Senator Scott Brown and I exchanged more flagrant fouls in the 2011 Home Court charity basketball game. 

Title apologies to John Dean. (Mike Frisch)

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