Court: Hockey-Stick Injury Could Be Considered an Accident

January 10, 2008

Putting itself in the skates of an 8-year-old, the Utah Supreme Court reinstated a lawsuit Tuesday filed by a woman whose son was smacked in the head with a hockey stick while teasing another player.

A key issue: Did Daniel, the boy who swung the stick, believe he was going to seriously hurt Caleb?

The answer is important because Safeco Insurance Co. refused a claim filed by Caleb’s family. The insurer said the boy’s skull fracture and other brain injuries were no accident.

But in a 5-0 decision, the state Supreme Court said it’s not so clear.

“An average 8-year-old would not anticipate anything more than a minor injury as a result of a hockey stick striking the padded shoulder of another child,” Justice Jill Parrish wrote.

The lawsuit against Safeco had been dismissed in favor of the insurer. The new ruling means the case will return to 3rd District Court for further work.

The incident occurred in July 2003 during a hockey camp at a Salt Lake City-area ice rink. For three days, Daniel was teased by Caleb and others over his skills.

While getting dressed for practice, Daniel, 8, retaliated by striking Caleb, 7, in the head with his stick. The Orem boy was in full uniform but was not wearing a helmet.

Daniel said he was aiming at a padded shoulder but missed.

“They put a metal plate into his head. I think he’ll have to get that replaced as he grows,” said Nelson Abbott, attorney for Caleb’s mother, who is identified in court papers only as N.M. The boys were only identified by their first names.

“But kids’ brains are able to rewire. He’s doing well,” Abbott said. “When he walks there is no physical limp.”

Abbott said he is suing Safeco, the insurer of Daniel’s family, for pain and suffering and medical expenses.

“We offered to settle within the policy limits. Safeco refused,” he said, declining to disclose an amount.

Safeco’s attorney, Bob Janicki, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The court said Daniel’s age at the time is relevant in judging whether Caleb’s injuries should be considered a natural consequence of swinging the stick.

“Because of lack of experience, an 8-year-old is less likely than an adult to appreciate the potential danger of hitting an unintended area,” the court said.

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