People who suffer injuries while they are engaged in recreational activities or sports are generally prevented from recovering damages in a lawsuit by the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. However, this doctrine does not apply when a defendant’s actions increase the risks beyond what is normal for the sport or intentionally injures someone else. In Szarowicz v. Birenbaum, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. A156312, the appeals court considered a case in which the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Michael Szarowicz and Jeremy Birenbaum both participated in a recreational ice hockey league in San Francisco in 2017. The league was a no-contact league, meaning that the players were prohibited from body-checking one another. During a recreational hockey championship game on Jan. 30, 2017, Birenbaum and Szarowicz were on opposing teams. The league that their teams played in was for teams of the next to lowest skill level. Szarowicz’s team, the Icehounds, was ahead by five points during the final minutes of the game. The puck shot across the ice towards the bench where the players sat, and Szarowicz followed it. He intended to hit it toward the opposing team’s goal. Birenbaum had been guarding the goal when he took six strides across the ice towards Szarowicz. As Szarowicz turned to hit the puck, Birenbaum collided with him, causing him to be tossed into the air and fall to the ice. He was knocked unconscious for a few moments but was eventually able to get up and to be helped off of the ice. He remained on the bench until the game’s end. He was then taken to the hospital and was found to have suffered extensive injuries, including six rib fractures, three fractures in his shoulder, a shoulder dislocation, a sternum fracture, a scapular fracture, and a collapsed lung.