Thomas M. Bona, P.C.

Attorneys At Law


Court of Appeals:

Internal Policy of Hockey Organization Cannot Serve as a Basis of Liability


As part of our continuing commitment to provide outstanding representation and to serve as an information resource, we wish to inform you of a recent Court of Appeals case.


Tort liability is expanded when plaintiffs assert theories and causes of action which push tort boundaries beyond their current standard. A recent case decided by the Court of Appeals shows this very phenomenon. In Pink v. Rome Youth Hockey Association, Inc., (hereinafter “RYHA”) was a non-profit community sports organization operated by volunteers. It rented a local arena owned by the City of Rome to host a hockey tournament for 13 year olds and some 50 - 75 spectators attended the game between Rome and Whitestown. Both teams belonged to the youth hockey associations and both associations were part of USA Hockey, the governing national organization.


During the game, several on-ice fights broke out between the players who received penalties and in some cases were ejected from the game. The referee also ejected the Whitestown coach and spectators engaged in name calling and yelling. The game concluded without any physical altercation in the stands. However after the game was over two female spectators got into a fight in the stands, and a melee quickly ensued as several others, including the plaintiff, stepped in to break up the fight.  Matthew Ricci (hereinafter “Ricci”), the brother of one of the two female spectators involved in the fight, struck the plaintiff causing him to sustain head injuries. The plaintiffs commenced an action against the Whitestown Youth Hockey Association, the City of Rome, the RYHA, as well as those involved in the melee. 


The complaint alleged that defendant owed a duty to protect the plaintiff from criminal assault and plaintiffs alleged in their bill of particulars that defendants were negligent in failing to enforce USA Hockey’s Zero Tolerance policy. The policy required on-ice officials to seek to remove spectators for use of obscene or vulgar language or for threatening or using physical violence. The defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that it did not have a duty to protect the plaintiff from a random assault where there is no history of violence of physical confrontation. The Supreme Court denied the motion finding that the basis of plaintiff’s claim was that the tensions between the spectators put the defendants on notice of the need to enforce the Zero Tolerance Policy. The Court held that by failing to enforce the policy, defendants may have violated a duty that it assumed.  The Court also held that Ricci’s criminal actions did not absolve the RYHA of liability.


The Appellate Division modified the judgment and granted summary judgment to the Whitestown Youth Hockey Association concluding that it did not owe a duty to the plaintiff since it had not leased the arena. The Court however found that there were issues of fact as to whether defendant’s RYHA’s duty included the duty to protect the plaintiff from the assault and given the hostile environment, whether the defendant knew or should have known of the likelihood of a fight. There was a dissent which allowed the case to be appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed the complaint.


The Court of Appeals found that the criminal assault on plaintiff was not a reasonably foreseeable result of any failure to take preventative measures. The Court of Appeals held that while the defendant owed a duty to protect spectators from foreseeable criminal conduct, the scope of the duty is defined by the likelihood that the aggressive behavior would lead to criminal assault. The Court noted that the defendant took measures to address player and spectator conduct. The Court of Appeals noted that the behavior of the fans, however inappropriate, did not create the risk that failure to eject any specific spectator would lead to a criminal assault, especially since such an assault had never happened before.


The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the defendants’ failure to enforce Zero Tolerance Policy by ejecting spectators constituted an independent evidence of negligence. The Court noted that violation of an organization’s internal rules is not negligence and where the internal policy exceeds the standard of ordinary care, it cannot serve as a basis for imposing liability. In addition, the Court of Appeals noted that the policy did not demonstrate that the defendant was on notice of the likelihood of criminal assaults as a general awareness of incidents nationwide does not establish foreseeability.


In this case, plaintiff’s attempt to fashion an enhanced standard of liability was rejected but it is certain that plaintiffs will continue to push the boundaries of tort law.


Should you have any questions, please call.

Thomas M. Bona