Legal liability: Heat exhaustion at the Australian Open

As self-employed professionals, tennis players are not being coerced to play by an employer; they’re making the choice themselves to play in high heat conditions. Sports solicitor Andrew Crudge evaluates what impact this have on the organiser’s liability should any serious health issues arise.

With the extremely high temperatures at the Australian Open, many players are concerned about the health risks associated with the organiser’s decision to allow play to continue in these conditions.

Generally speaking, liability will apply where a person or organisation breaches a duty of care to an individual.  For a huge event like the Australian Open, there are likely to be a number of bodies that owe a duty of care. The players’ professional bodies, for example, and of course the event organisers themselves. 

And it’s not just players; staff, contractors, ball boys and girls and spectators are also all likely to be owed a duty of care in these circumstances.

So despite the players’ self-employed status, the organisers have a duty to ensure that a safe operational environment is in place. However, even though a duty arises, liability will only apply if that duty is breached.

If there is a breach, then organisers could have liability for any injuries (and associated losses) caused to people who are affected by the extreme heat.

The organisers are well aware of this liability, which is why they have an Extreme Heat Policy. This essentially states that measures will be put in place (such as stopping play, closing roofs and allowing breaks) where the heat reaches dangerous levels. So if applied correctly, this policy should reduce the risk of injury being caused, and could be used as a defence to any claim for liability.

There have already been several high-profile incidents with players and ball boys suffering and fainting due to the heat. So it seems that the Extreme Heat Policy is just not effective in reducing the health and safety risks of these conditions.

If that is the case, then the event organisers are opening themselves up to the possibility of legal action if a serious health issue did arise.  

Perhaps the organisers have recognised the seriousness of the situation as the Extreme Heat Policy has now been fully implemented. But this has only occurred after days of negative press and complaints from players.

With the FIFA World Cup due to take place in the extreme heat of Qatar in 2022, important lessons need to be learned from this situation. Unfortunately, it may be that the organisers won’t proactively manage the risks of the extreme heat until a serious health incident (and potential claim) actually occurs.

Andrew Crudge is a specialist sports solicitor at law firm Thomas Eggar.

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