Inappropriate Buffer Zones in Sports and Recreation May Lead to Litigation

TASA ID: 658

A young girl in a daycare gymnasium ran to access a low trampoline which was in close proximity to an unpadded wall.  She tripped on the egress of the mat ramp, sustaining a head injury.  Three of the gymnasium walls were padded, while the fourth was not padded, thus creating a double standard of care. There have been many sport/recreation litigation cases in which the proximate cause for the injury is related directly to inappropriate safety zones on the court or field, or in the gym.  These zones are sometimes referred to as buffer zones, safety space cushions, or use zones, depending upon the agency using the jargon.  Basically, for the purposes of this article, we can define a buffer zone as a safe distance utilized on the perimeter of courts, playgrounds, gyms, and fields where it would be anticipated a participant would not come into contact with obstructions.

Certainly, standards within athletics, recreation and physical education will assist the coach, supervisor, or caregiver in providing an obstruction -free environment.  However, we need to recognize that the "standard of care" and the "standard of practice" can differ within some situations.  Attorneys James A. Comodeca and J.R. Schaefer made the distinction regarding "standard of care" versus "standard of practice," stating, "'Standard of care' is the minimum acceptable conduct or performance related to a given activity or relationship. . . .The 'standard of practice' may or may not rise to the minimum level of care required by a given activity" [Comodeca & Schaefer, 1997]. 

For example, it is established within the baseball/softball industry that warning tracks for the outfield would be the standard of care for participant safety. The skinned clay/dirt portion from the outfield grass to the fence permits outfielders to know the fence is not that far away when backpedaling for a fly ball.  However, caregivers in certain situations may grow the turf right to the bottom of the fencing.  From their standpoint, less maintenance and less staff hours will be spent in grooming and tilling the warning track.  The standard of care would dictate we have spacing for the participant at heart.  In the latter situation, financial considerations would affect the operant decision.  We always must remember that the standard of care is not something unattainable within sports.  It is the minimum requirement for the activity.

It is interesting to note that outdoor fields do vary in their space requirements for an activity. Football fields require 15 feet of space around the outer perimeter, while soccer fields require ten feet of space around the outer perimeter.  Softball fields require 25 feet behind home plate and on the first and third base lines.  Baseball fields require 60 feet from home plate to the backstop [See, Gillis, J., 2010].  The caregiver who does not adhere to these distances can be found liable if the injury was due to an insufficient buffer zone.   For example, in one case involving a city municipality and a co-educational adult recreational softball league, the expert witness at the deposition cited lack of the appropriate 25-foot set-back. The young woman playing the catcher's position injured her ankle by coming into contact with the backstop, which was less than 25 feet from the third base line.  She sustained a broken ankle that required nine screws.

Indoor courts also have buffer zone issues that have led to litigation. It is recognized that the three-to ten-foot buffer zone at the end of basketball courts is woefully inadequate.   As pointed out in a recent sport law conference, it should be remembered that this has been the standard for at least 45 years!  [See, The Athletic Institute, et al. 1966].  With today's stronger, faster, and more agile players, shouldn't this antiquated standard be adjusted to meet current demands?  Of course, some basketball courts within recreational or school centers date back to the start of the 1900's; therefore, from a practical standpoint, the building can't be redesigned.   Retrofitting a court by making it smaller and repositioning the basketball goals might be one solution; however, it may take away from the regulation length/width.  

Other indoor facilities have their safety zone problems. The concept of a volleyball court is interesting since out of bounds is actually in play.  Therefore, plenty of space is necessary for the participants around the outside of the court. With indoor batting cages, safety would dictate placing them away from adjacent walls. The netting draped along the wall does little or nothing to slow down the track of the ball. The ball can ricochet off the wall and hit a pitcher, even if the pitcher is behind an "L" screen.  Therefore, safety would indicate placing the netting away from solid partitions and walls. 

Indoor track practice in the winter in northern climates can be extremely hazardous if the participants are working out within the hallways of a school.  Classroom doors opening out into the hallway present a clear danger.  Students unaware of track practice may be walking in the hallway.  Utilizing the intercom and making an appropriate announcement that track practice will commence and end at particular times will alert the student body and faculty.  Track practice is especially dangerous on tile floors.   Permitting competitive racing in the hallways to a finish line within close proximity to the end of the hallway may result in a collision with the wall. A traumatic head injury did occur within this scenario without the benefit of matting.  

In another track-related litigation matter, protective mats were utilized at the end of the finish line.  Mats, however, will not prevent all long bone injuries.  In this interactive sports center, a young man doing a short sprint race ran into "crash matting" [thick gymnastic matting].  He sustained a fracture to his left arm along with some muscular, tendon and ligament damage.  The crux of this matter revolved around the close proximity of the finish line to the mats.  Also, the sports center's design came into play since there was space behind the crash mats to lengthen the finish line.         

Glass within exercise domains is particularly hazardous if within a buffer zone area. Gymnasiums should not be designed with doors inset with glass.  Sometimes, people are under the misinformed impression that glass with wire in it will be stronger and safer.   This is simply not true.  The wire embedded within the glass is there only to prevent the glass from shattering in the event of a fire [See:].

Storm drains near athletic fields can be hazardous to the participants. A college intern performing a physical education assignment played speedball with her class on an east/west axis on a soccer field.   After the class concluded, the supervisor from the university was critiquing the intern's lesson and queried her about the storm drain's close proximity to her game.  The intern admitted that during varsity soccer matches, the drain would be covered by a tumbling mat.  However, her focus was on the initiation for her lesson, the flow of her lesson, and closure.  She didn't see the potential problem.    

Health and fitness centers need specific spaces for safety zones.  For example, mirrors affixed to walls should be at least 20 inches off the floor for safety.  The rationale is that the largest diameter plate for lifting weights would be in the vicinity of 18 inches.  Therefore, if the largest diameter weight plate did roll on its edge, it wouldn't be capable of breaking/cracking the mirror.

The Xu v. Gay treadmill case is a classic buffer zone case for health/fitness facilities.  On February 18, 1999, Ning Yan signed in at Vital Power Fitness Center in Michigan.  He fell off the treadmill, but it is disputed exactly how he fell.  The plaintiff party indicated he tripped on the treadmill's belt while jogging and that the belt's force threw him back into the wall or window ledge behind the treadmill.  The defendant party countered this claim by saying Ning was ill, which led to his fall and caused him to hit the floor.  However he fell, Ning severely injured his head.  The buffer zone from the rear of the treadmill to the wall and window ledge was only two and one-half feet! Yan died about one month later.   The plaintiff's expert cited a need for five feet; however, he did not specify where he derived this figure [See, Eickhoff-Shemek et al., 2009].  The American Society for Testing and Materials International advocates 19.7 inches on the sides of treadmills and 39 inches to the rear [See, ASTM, F 2115].

Lastly, playgrounds require specific use zones.  Generally speaking, six feet is required for all stationary equipment.   Swings require more space since children sometimes jump off them.  The formula for a swing use zone takes the vertical distance from the protective surfacing to the top fulcrum point of the swing and multiplies this figure by two. For example, if the swing is eight feet from the protective surfacing to the fulcrum point, sixteen feet would be required for safety to the rear and to the front of the swing [i.e. 32 feet in total].

Attorneys need to know the most prominent agencies within the sports/recreation industry to be confident that their resources are legitimate. The following prominent organizations have excellent resources for the attorney doing research for athletic/recreation cases:  the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance; the National Strength and Conditioning Association; the American College of Sports Medicine; the National Program for Playground Safety; the National Recreation and Park Association; the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; and the American Society for Testing and Materials International, to mention just a few.  Rule books are also key for athletic diagrams and safe spacing for fields and courts.

Consider the expertise of each agency. For example, one notable and rather recent [2007] health/fitness treatise includes a reference page on playground standards.  However, the organization's expertise lies within the health/fitness industry [i.e. guidelines and standards]. Unfortunately, their source citation for playground standards is from 1988.  Since then, the playground industry has exploded with knowledge, and the standard of care has evolved. Therefore, this citation is meaningless.  Additionally, they overstepped their area of expertise since their primary body of knowledge lies within health and fitness, not playground standards.

In summary, if you are an attorney involved in a sports and recreation safety zone case, know the standards involved.  Make the private investigator aware of the standards as well. The buffer zone case presents the challenge of researching the appropriate standard for the activity.  You should also retain the appropriate expert.  It would be wise to take several photographs and measurements of the area, as well.  More is better!  Overall, the critical questions you must ask yourself are, "Did the caregiver have the foreseeability to prevent this buffer zone injury, and if so, what could have been done?" 


American Society for Testing and Materials International. [2005].  Standard specification for motorized treadmills.  F2115-05.  West Conshohocken, PA.:  American Society for Testing and Materials International.

Comodeca, J. A. & Schaefer, J. R. [Autumn, 1997].  "Standard of care v. standard of practice: an important distinction." CAPS Matters. 1, (4), 1, 4.

Eickhoff-Shemek, J., Herbert, D. L., & Connaughton, D. P. [2009].  Risk management for health/fitness professionals.  Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

Gillis, J. (Ed.).  (2010).  NFHS court and field diagram guide.   Indianapolis, Indiana:  National Federation of State High School Associations.     

The Athletic Institute and American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. Planning areas and facilities for health, physical education, and recreation.  Chicago, Illinois: The Athletic Institute and the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. 1966. [Retrieved on 8/5/2004].

 This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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