Jan Levinson on sportsmen's personal injury compensation

Jan Levinson is a partner in the commercial disputes resolution unit at the Manchester office of Hammond Suddards.

Seven-figure sums compensating personal injury claimants are rare – especially when the individual retains the ability to continue his chosen trade. However, Gordon Watson – a professional footballer at Bradford City, now in the Premier League – has been awarded such a sum.

The award represented compensation for a horrific fracture which he suffered in February 1997, following a late tackle in only his third game for the club against local rival Huddersfield Town.

Liability was established in October 1998, when Watson became the second football player in history to prove negligence against another player and liability against that player's club. Watson had shown "on the balance of probabilities that a reasonable player would have known that in challenging in such a manner there was a risk of serious injury".

The judge decided that a professional athlete such as Watson, who had not played 90 minutes in a first team match for over two years, should receive compensation. He said Watson was a highly-talented player cut down in the prime of his career. The fact that he had played football in the Premier League virtually all his career before sustaining the injury at the age of 25, meant that he had lost the opportunity to earn the high wages available to other players at that level.

The judge took the view that by January 1998, had it not been for the injury, Watson would have transferred back to the Premier League. He reached this finding after hearing evidence of football experts, including Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear and ex-manager of Nottingham Forest, Frank Clarke.

This decision has in no way diminished the fact that in any contact sport injuries are inevitable. But since player protection is a crucial element of the game, a person should not lose his rights because he steps on to the playing field. If a player is deprived of the opportunity to earn substantial wages, there is no reason why he should not be entitled to significant compensation.

Until a scheme is introduced into football, implementing a "no-fault" fund for injuries, sportsmen will continue to seek redress through the courts. The high award in this case is likely to prompt others to pursue compensation.