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Rugby brain injury legal action reaches High Court

23 Jun 2023 3 minute read
Dafydd James. Photo David Jones PA Images

A legal claim brought by more than 200 ex-rugby players against three of the sport’s governing bodies alleging they suffered brain injuries during their careers has reached the High Court.

On Friday, lawyers representing 169 former professional and 66 ex-amateur sportsmen and women appeared in court for the first preliminary hearing in their claims against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.

Lawyers for the group of players have previously alleged the governing bodies failed to take reasonable steps to protect players from injury caused by repetitive blows and that many now have permanent neurological injuries including early onset dementia, Parkinson’s disease and the neurodegenerative condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Players who have previously spoken publicly about having these conditions include England’s 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson and former Wales international player Dafydd James – both of whom are bringing legal action.

Mr Thompson, who has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, has previously said he cannot remember being awarded an MBE by the late Queen following England’s victory over Australia in the World Cup final.

Susan Rodway KC, for the group of players, asked the court in London to order the disclosure of documents about the steps the governing bodies were taking or considering related to “protecting the brain health of their players”, but was unsuccessful in the bid.

Abject failure

The barrister said in written submissions: “The claimants suspect, therefore, that this is a case where there has been an abject failure of documenting or recording systems, protocols, reviews, health records, playing records, or commissioned medical and scientific research to support any decision by the governing bodies that related to the priority of players’ safety.

“The obfuscation relied upon by the defendants in respect of disclosure leads inexorably to the reasonable suspicion that there is nothing to disclose and that the game of rugby union has been a gladiatorial contest with the focus on a purely reactive attitude to issues of health and safety.”

Friday’s bid for documents was opposed by lawyers for the three rugby governing bodies.

Michael Kent KC, for the Rugby Football Union, said: “This is not a jurisdiction that should be referred to just because it would be nice to have a fuller set of documents… It requires some special circumstances.”

The barrister also said the request was too early in the proceedings, describing it as “a very wide ranging and expensive exercise”.

“There are blanket allegations against the defendants, all three defendants,” he added.

Neil Block KC, for the Welsh Rugby Union, added: “We are acutely aware of our obligations to the court with regards to disclosure but we also have the welfare of the players as a primary consideration.”

In written submissions, Mr Kent, Mr Block and World Rugby’s barrister Nina Goolamali KC said there were “obvious problems apparent from the case” and that it was based on “reducing but not eliminating the risks inherent in a contact sport such as rugby union”.

Judge Barbara Fontaine dismissed the bid for the documents, with the exception of a set of concussion management regulations from World Rugby.

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