If you are like me and have lived in Bishop’s Stortford for long enough, you will know that sport is an important part of this town and community. Growing up here, I know first-hand how lucky Stortford is to have such a wide selection of very good and successful sports clubs and teams. Sport is a part of the fabric of our communities as well as underpinning our health and wellbeing. It is a force for good and positivity (even though the lows of your treasured team losing may not always feel like it!). For the majority of players, a cool down and recovery day manage the impact of participating in sport, there are occasions when events or matches and the like have longer term and life changing consequences. The recent case of Czernuska v King  WLR(D) 99 is proof of that. It is the case of a rugby match gone very wrong for Dani Czernuska when she suffered spinal fractures as a result of a very aggressive tackle by Natasha King.
In October 2017, Dani Czernuska was 28 and had recently joined a developmental women’s rugby team, the newly formed Sirens, part of Redingensians Rugby Club. At the end of the 2016/17 season, the Sirens had played their first ever competitive match since forming and were against the Bracknell Ladies team who had recently reformed. That match had not gone well for the Sirens and Natasha King had played very aggressively, shouting, swearing and punching one of the Sirens. Her behaviour also led to a second Siren breaking her arm, and a third sustaining a head injury.
Fast forward to 8 October 2017 at the start of the next season and the Sirens were once again facing the Bracknell Ladies again. They remembered Ms King distinctly and she began this match the same as the last. Over the course of this match, she used foul language and trash talk to ‘psych out’ the Sirens as well as several violent and aggressive incidents which caused some less significant injuries to other players. The case identifies 8 individual incidents where the Defendant went too far and showed clear disrespect for the Sirens and the sport of rugby in general. At the end of the 7th incident she was heard threatening Ms Czernuska which she then followed through during a scrum a few minutes later. Ms Czernuska had come to the back of the ruck and bends down to pick up the ball but before she ever has the opportunity to do so, Natasha King comes round the side and heads straight for her. While Dani Czernuska is bent over and highly exposed, Ms King goes straight for her rather than making a play for the ball. She places her whole weight forward and down on Ms Czernuska’s back and then grabs her thighs just above the knees driving Dani Czernuska down to the ground while she is folded in half. Dani Czernuska immediately sustained a fracture dislocation to her spine which is a complete motor injury leaving her paralysed from her waist downwards.
Dani Czernuska’s claim was brought directly against Natasha King. Experienced and retired referees were brought in as experts for Ms Czernuska and Ms King. Over the course of the trial, it was determined that Ms King had been taken an inappropriate approach to both the first match and this match. As a developmental league, the standards of play and the approach to the match is different to that of a professional match. Although it was a league match, it was a developmental league and the players should have been approaching matches in that spirit. Natasha King had been attempting to dominate the match and throw her weight around to help win but when this was not working she became frustrated. She then set her sights on Ms Czernuska and it was found that the red mist “descended over [her] eyes”. The Court found that during the incident in question, the tackle was an illegal one per the rules of the sport and whilst she may not have intended to harm, she conducted the tackle with complete disregard for Dani Czernuska’s safety and in a way which was likely to cause injury. It was also found that the way she conducted the tackle was deliberate in that she was not attempting to play within the laws of the sport. And upon injuring Ms Czernuska who had immediately screamed “I’ve broken my back”, Ms King had got up and walked away with no regard for Ms Czernuskawhich was clearly not in the spirit of the game. Natasha King was therefore found liable for Dani Czernuska’s injury.
The Court determined that the test for negligence is whether a Defendant fails to exercise such degree of care as is appropriate in all the circumstances. The fact that the tackle was an illegal one is one of those circumstances but not in itself sufficient to prove it. Ultimately, the facts of this case were unusual but given how significant the injuries were, it has been important for Dani Czernuska to prove her case and recognise the foul play against her so that she can gain the much-needed compensation to rebuild her life.