Court allows suit by parent injured at soccer tourney

A soccer mom who her hurt shoulder after tripping over a cooler at a concession area can sue the nonprofit athletic association that organized a tournament, a state appeals court ruled yesterday.

While state law protects youth groups from lawsuits by spectators, the court said Karin Roberts of Winslow Township, Camden County, may sue the Timber Birch- Broadmoor Athletic Association because she says she was a volunteer who kept score and provided first aid for kids.

This is the second time this week an appeals court has allowed lawsuits over injuries at sporting events. On Monday, a three-judge panel ruled a spectator who was hit with a foul ball at the concession area at a Newark Bears game can sue the minor league baseball team and the vendor.

Roberts, 43, was walking with her daughter to a concession area where hot dogs and T-shirts were being sold at the tournament when she tripped over the cooler on Aug. 26, 2000. She said yesterday that she separated her shoulder and was out of work for nearly three months from jobs as a legal secretary and as a Wal-Mart stock clerk.

Her lawsuit was booted out by a lower court that concluded the soccer group was protected by the state’s charitable immunity law, which bars anyone who benefits from a charity’s work from suing. But the appeals court said that Roberts, whose two children played soccer, could qualify as a “bona fide” volunteer who helped the nonprofit group.

“Charitable immunity may not apply … if plaintiff was a contributor to the organization rather than a beneficiary by virtue of her volunteer activities at the tournament,” the three-judge panel concluded.

Roberts, whose husband John was a coach, said she made sure the equipment got to the proper place, and would bring ice packs and bandages or other first aid to players when they got hurt. She also kept the scores posted. Her son and daughter played on different teams during the tournament.

The court said a jury should make the ultimate decision on whether Roberts qualifies as a volunteer. It also said the lawsuit can proceed even though she was hurt while buying food and not while actually engaged in volunteer activities.

Roberts said yesterday she was not looking for a big windfall or to harm the organization.

“I wasn’t looking for anything huge,” Roberts said. “I was trying to recoup my lost wages.”

Jeanine Willis, executive director of New Jersey Youth Soccer, which includes 400 teams, said litigation of this sort hurts youth sports, but declined to comment on the specific case because it involved one of her members.

Gerard X. Smith, the lawyer for Timber Birch-Broadmoor Athletic Association, did not return calls for comment.

Chris Kinnan, of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based group that is trying to limit lawsuits, said yesterday’s decision and the Monday decision allowing the fan to sue the Newark Bears illustrate a legal system run amok.

He said such lawsuits raise the price for consumers, even if the costs are picked up by insurance companies.

“The way lawsuits are filed today, it’s sort of a lawsuit lottery,” said Kinnan. “It makes every American feel they have to litigate every situation or they think they are being taken advantage of. But at the end of the day the costs are borne by consumers.”

A separate appeals court panel on Monday ruled that a Newark man who was hit in the face with a ball while buying a beer at Newark’s Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium can sue because fans in concession areas can “let down their guard.”

Timothy Schipske, an attorney for the Newark Bears, said yesterday the team will appeal Monday’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“The Newark Bears believe this case raises a question of public importance to the citizens of our state for not only baseball fans but also for fans of all athletic endeavors,” Schipskes said.

Kathy Barrett Carter covers the New Jersey Supreme Court and legal issues. She can be reached at kcar or (609) 989-0254