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Rec hockey player awarded $700K for body check that caused head injury

A gavel sits on a desk before the a meeting of the House Justice and Human Rights Committee in Ottawa, Wednesday February 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A beer league hockey player who suffered a head injury almost eight years ago should get more than $700,000 from the player who crashed into him, an Ontario court has ruled.

The case highlights the change in how courts treat hockey injuries, the judge said in her decision.

“This is not the first lawsuit in Canada for injuries sustained during a hockey game,” Justice Sally Gomery wrote in her decision. “Courts have moved from requiring evidence of intent to harm to applying the general rules of negligence, adapting them to the context of a sport where some risk of injury is inevitable.”

The case arose in March 2012, when Gordon MacIsaac body-checked Drew Casterton behind the net during the last minute of their recreational league game in Ottawa. Casterton hit his head on the ice.

MacIsaac said the collision was accidental after Casterton made a sudden turn. Casterton, 36, argued he was blindsided, and that he suffered life-altering injuries as a result.

The key issue was whether MacIsaac was liable for the injuries, and whether Casterton himself had done anything to contribute to his misfortune.

Gomery cited earlier cases in which judges have noted that hockey involves violent body contact as well as blows from pucks and sticks. As a result, players can’t be judged according to the rules of polite social discourse.

At the same time, she said, courts have also found that it’s not a matter of ‘anything goes’ when players step onto the ice.

“A person injured during a hockey game does not need to prove either an intent to injure or reckless disregard,” Gomery said. “The injured player must simply show that the injury was caused by conduct that fell outside of what a reasonable competitor would expect in the circumstances.”

In dispute was what exactly happened in the runup to Casterton’s injuries during the game between his Pirates and Tiger Cats of the Ontario Senior Men’s Hockey League. Although a rec league, most players were former Carleton University students in their late 20s who were experienced and skilled players, court documents show.

Various witnesses gave conflicting testimony, not surprising given the length of time since the incident, their vantage points at the time, and team loyalties, the judge noted.

After sorting through the testimony – some of which she rejected outright as unreliable – Gomery decided that MacIsaac, a defenceman, had deliberately skated toward Casterton at high speed and at an angle where the forward could not see him. MacIsaac further positioned himself to maximize bodily contact with an unprepared Casterton, she found

The hit, Gomery concluded, was either deliberate or reckless. Regardless, she said, MacIsaac would be liable for Casterton’s injuries for failing to meet the standard of care applicable to a hockey player in the circumstances. The injured Casterton, she concluded, did nothing wrong or negligent.

“Every player who testified stated that a blindside hit to the face is, and was, outside the bounds of fair play,” Gomery said. “They have no place in recreational play, or in any hockey game.”

In all, Gomery awarded Casterton $702,551 for general damages and past and future loss of income. She accepted medical evidence that he has ongoing headaches, fatigue, and intolerance for social situations. He is also unable to work or engage in athletic or recreational activities to nearly the same level as he could.

“He has never returned to the life he enjoyed prior to the March 15, 2012, game,” Gomery said.