Schools increasingly under fire over sports injuries


South African schools are increasingly under fire due to injuries sustained by learners during the practice of school sports.

So say lawyers who these days regularly handle claims against schools on behalf of injured learners.

Kirstie Haslam, partner at DSC Solicitors, says moreover that many sports injuries at schools can be prevented and that they often unnecessarily lead to claims for compensation.

“Injuries during school sports are alarmingly common and many of them are preventable if schools pay attention to safety issues,” says Haslam.

She says the practice receives at least one or two inquiries about personal injury claims every month. “Although the number of cases we deal with annually cannot be compared with other areas of practice, such as road accidents and medical malpractice, it is still a lot.”

“Insufficient adult supervision, medical negligence, incompetence, unusable equipment as well as damaged or improper playing surfaces are all preventable reasons that often lead to injuries in school sports.”

She refers to a court case earlier this year where the complainant, Izak Foster, sued the MEC of Education for millions of rands due to a rugby injury that left him paralyzed 17 years ago. The court found Foster’s high school did not take proper steps to prevent him from getting hurt during the game. Unqualified paramedics employed by the school further contributed to the severity of his injury.

According to data collected by the Chris Burger/Petro Jackson Players Fund, four school rugby players suffered serious spinal injuries last year. However, these players are expected to make a full recovery. One death due to a traumatic brain injury was reported. Between 2012 and 2022, between three and five injuries and deaths were reported annually. In 2017, two deaths, both from heart-related causes, were reported.

Research conducted in recent years also shows that rugby-related injuries among schoolboys in South Africa are frighteningly high.

A research report published by the University of Cape Town in 2017 states that rugby-related injuries among schoolboys in South Africa are more common than in other major rugby nations such as England and Ireland.

According to this, half of the 400 primary school students who took part in the research suffered at least one concussion.

Another research report published in 2019 investigated rugby injuries during a high school rugby season. According to this, almost 30 injuries are sustained in every 1,000 player exposure hours.

Haslam believes that contact sports such as boxing, rugby, hockey, soccer and netball all have a higher risk of injury.

“Rugby is responsible for the most serious injuries and deaths, although hockey, water polo, netball and other ball sports contribute to the figures.”

She says injuries also mostly occur at smaller school gatherings due to insufficient supervision as well as the absence or lack of treatment protocols.

Every sport has its injuries

Bobby McLeod, executive director of the NWU Super 16 sports series, says contact sports unfortunately always have the risk of injury.

“In the 35 years that I have been involved in school sports, there was one case where a boy suffered very serious problems later in his life due to rugby injuries and died from them.

“It will always haunt you, but unfortunately it is part of the sport.

He does say that athletes who participate in American football, boxing or even rowing are much more likely to get seriously hurt or die than if they were to play rugby.

He also points out that the BokSmart National Rugby Safety Program – a joint initiative of SA Rugby and the Chris Burger/Petro Jackson players’ fund – has taken measures to try to avoid injuries in school sports as far as possible.

This entails, among other things, that schools’ fields are examined by a BokSmart representative to identify any risks. The program also suggests measures for the management of rugby injuries and the use of protective equipment.

“Schools are obliged to participate in the Boksmart program and every coach and referee must renew his membership with BokSmart every two years.

He says that this program – which has been running since 2009 – plays a major role in reducing injuries at school level.

“If I think back to 35 years ago when I started coaching, we were all still very ignorant about concussions and more serious injuries.

“These days, coaches are trained as best as possible to teach players to avoid dangerous techniques and the rules in school rugby are constantly looked at to ensure the sport is as safe as possible for children,” says McLeod.

Steps for compensation claims in school sports injuries

Haslam believes that sports injury claims are complex and often difficult to prove because the injured party “voluntarily participated in the activity” and was often injured in the normal course of the sporting activity.

“By participating in high-risk sports such as rugby and hockey, players effectively consent to sustaining injuries.”

Haslam believes that this “tacit consent” is the main reason why personal injury claims are not successful.

“Unless the actions of the ‘offender’ are contrary to normal sporting activities, it is unlikely that a personal injury claim will succeed.”