Can An Injured Olympic Athlete Sue The Olympics?

The Wall Street Journal’s law blog featured a discussion today of the legal rights of the family of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the young Georgian luger who died in an Olympic practice run last Friday from head injuries sustained when he and his sled flew over a low wall coming out of a sharp turn on the luge course. Many have blamed the course for his death, noting how the course was apparently designed for maximum speed (in order to help one of the lugers set a new world record) and how the wall on the side of the luge track should have been higher.
But even if the International Olympic Committee is to blame for Kumaritashvili’s death can they be held legally responsible? That’s a question of Canadian law of course. But let’s assume that the Winter Olympics had been held in Boston, Massachusetts. What would the Kumaritashvili family’s rights be then?
The answer would turn upon a lot of the same legal doctrines raised in the Wall Street Journal post. First, there would be questions about Kumaritashvili’s assumption of risk. Under Massachusetts law, athletes who participate in sports are generally assumed to have agreed to the risks of injuries inherent in the sport and therefore to have waived their personal injury claims. In order to overcome the assumption of risk doctrine under Massachusetts law, Kumaritashvili’s family would have to show some sort of unusual risk posed by the track’s design.
Furthermore, as noted by the specialists in the Wall Street Journal article, the fact that the Olympics raised the wall that Kumaritashvili flew over as a result of his death, cannot be used against them as evidence of their negligence. Massachusetts law has the same rule regarding so-called “subsequent remedial measures,” now neatly summarized in Section 407 of the Massachusetts Guide To Evidence.
Another issue, one not raised by the article, would be the issue of contributory negligence. Did Kumaritshvili himself make any mistake? Did he oversteer? If Massachusetts law applied to the facts of the case and a jury found that the luger was more than 50 percent to blame for the accident, the jury would be instruct not to award the luger anything. (Of course, a good plaintiff’s lawyer could make a lot of arguments against the application of the rule – e.g., the plaintiff’s contributory negligence was not the cause of his injury, and a million others).