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March Madness & Liability Risks on and off the Basketball Court

It’s that time of year again. Sixty-eight college teams across the U.S. are competing in an elimination basketball tournament aka “March Madness,” a time of the year where brackets are being filled out, eager fans are riled up, and opportunities for players to show off their skills abound. Amid the chaos and excitement of the competition, we tend to forget about the potential injuries and liability risks on and around the court.

Looking back to the early 1990’s, Shaquille O’Neal set the standard regarding NBA equipment support systems and durability. “During his rookie season with the Magic in 1993, Shaq’s put-back dunk somehow deflated the hydraulic system that holds up the backboard, causing it to fold up and lower to the floor. Later against the New Jersey Nets, Shaq nearly decapitated himself with the shot clock after pulling down the entire backboard on a dunk” (Mike Cali, 2018). As players became stronger and larger, the NBA had to adapt to the times and upgrade their equipment systems and put in place court guidelines to mitigate future liability.

The NBA has the following guidelines and measurements put in place: “The rims hang 10 feet from the floor, sitting on opposite ends of a court that’s 50 feet wide and 94 feet long. Both ends of the floor feature a free throw line, 15 feet from the rim, and a 3-point arc that runs from 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket at the top of the perimeter to 22 feet at the baselines. The corner 3-pointer has become one of the league’s most popular shots because of the difference. The basketball itself measures 9 inches in diameter and must be inflated to between 8.5 and 9.5 pounds per square inch” (NBA Media Ventures, LLC). Although the NBA’s court guidelines create an environment that limits injuries, other basketball courts including college, high school, and even playground courts can be at higher risk for incidents.

In January 2021, Keshawn Murphy, a 6-foot-10, 225-pound player for Ramsay High School in Birmingham, Alabama, hung on the rim after a dunk that resulted in a complete collapse of the hoop support system attached to the ceiling bringing the whole structure to the ground. Although this instance did not cause a serious injury, hoop malfunctions can have serious consequences. “In 2016, a 16-year-old died in Ohio after sustaining injuries from a hoop falling on him. In 2018, a 14-year-old in Indiana died when his at-home hoop fell on him. Back in 2013, four fans were injured when a basketball hoop came crashing down at a game” (Patrick Pinak, 2021).  When evaluating these types of incidents, one must be able to investigate whether defects exist in the support structure or if faulty installation is to blame.

In addition to the risks to those on the court, most games are attended by masses of fans that need to safely enter the venue, navigate to seats and eventually leave the venue to head home.  The means of egress to these areas can pose unique challenges to venue designers and managers.  Stairways must be deployed with appropriate visual cues and associated safety devices such as handrails and guard rails.  Walking must be safe for pedestrians despite the fact they may become wet from spilled drinks.  Numerous hazards can arise during a basketball event for both players and spectators that can result in injuries and claims.  The appropriate expert will need to be able to reference appropriate codes and standards applicable to the specific incident scenario.  In these situations, it is important to have an expert engineer provide a detailed inspection to fully document the scene and identify any pieces of evidence that would need to be retained. Our expert witnesses utilize advanced technology to obtain precise measurements, weights, forces and other pieces of information that are used to provide sound scientific basis for their opinions and conclusions. On or off the court, if you become involved in a property damage, injury or premises liability case, CED’s expert witnesses can evaluate and provide situationally appropriate clarity.

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