ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s highest court is weighing whether a youth hockey league is responsible for fighting among spectators because it didn’t eject them from the arena as tensions rose.
Raymond Pink alleges it’s the Rome Youth Hockey Association’s fault he was punched in the head by Matthew Ricci, who later pleaded guilty to assault.
“The onus is on youth hockey to nip it in the bud,” Pink’s attorney Andrew Kirby told the Court of Appeals.
The association failed to enforce its no-tolerance policy against behavior by spectators like the yelling, taunting and obscenities that preceded blows, which began as a bantam league game ended in November 2006.
The association wants the lawsuit dismissed. Attorney Matthew Kelly argued Wednesday the incident was unforeseeable since there were no prior fights among spectators shown in the case record. He said a ruling against the association would amount to a new duty on youth leagues across the state to provide security and heightened liability, discouraging recreational activities.
“It’s just a guideline,” Kelly said of the zero-tolerance policy. “There is no proof of great violence throughout the land.”
Court of Appeals Judge Michael Garcia noted that under the zero-tolerance policy, when there’s bad behavior in the stands, association officials can tell the coach to deal with his team’s unruly spectators. The potential hammer is making that team otherwise forfeit the game, he said.
“In this game, they’d already thrown that coach out. They threw players out,” Garcia said. “They warned, I think there’s evidence in the record, some spectators that were near the penalty box. And so isn’t that a reasonable response to what was then not a physical altercation?”
Kirby said the actual facts of what happened here should be considered by a trial court. The zero-tolerance police for youth hockey, if it had been carried out, would have led to the ejection of the people who started the fight, he said.
“USA Hockey … had recognized the problem. It’s a very specific problem,” Kirby said. “These verbal altercations at every level of amateur hockey have led to numerous physical assaults occurring at games.”
Judge Leslie Stein questioned how the policy would be implemented by youth leagues mostly staffed by volunteers. “And how far do we take this? Does it apply to T-ball games?”
The seven-member court is expected to rule next month whether to uphold lower courts and let the case go to trial.