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Tournament Trauma

lesson learned mentor Sep 01, 2020

by Beth A. Block


Tournaments can be an important part of martial arts training. They allow us to experience the drive of competition, to learn to accept defeat gracefully and to feel the thrill of victory. Some studios require participation; some make it optional. Others do not train their students to compete at all. No matter where you stand, there is one certainty when it comes to tournaments: They always carry a risk of injury.

In this column, I will focus on a specific tournament story not because COVID-19 is over — the disease is still an important risk to manage — but because I want to remind everyone that we face other risks in the martial arts.

A few years ago, I attended a tournament that involved several hundred people and dozens of studios. The insurance companies I represent always advise the organizers of such events to have EMTs on-site. That’s recommended because, as we all know, participants can get injured no matter how careful the organizer is.

This particular tournament included traditional forms, open forms, weapons, one-on-one sparring and group sparring. The brackets were set by rank and age. Everything seemed to be well-organized.

I was manning a table near the competition rings and next to the EMT table. I saw all the injured competitors as they came through. The tournament host wouldn’t let participants resume competing unless they were cleared by the EMTs. I was impressed.

Everything seemed to be going well. A couple of twisted ankles occurred. There also was a strained back, a black eye and a broken leg — all common in competition. Then came the big deal: A detached retina sustained by a 14-year-old girl.

She had seen the roundhouse kick coming at her head but chose not to block. Instead, her defense/offense was to bob and weave, then charge. Problem is she didn’t bob low enough. She took a foot to the eye and — bam! — sustained a severe injury.

Over the next three months, she underwent surgery four times. Although it was too soon to tell if she would ever regain full vision in that eye, it was soon enough to know that her treatment was expensive and would be ongoing. Her parents consulted a lawyer. They decided to sue the tournament host and the studio their daughter attended.

The studio wasn’t my client, but I asked to stay in the loop. I’m an insurance/risk-management nerd, and I wanted to know the end of the story.

The first “uh-oh” came when it was revealed that the host hadn’t purchased tournament insurance. Martial arts general liability policies provide coverage for instruction you deliver to your enrolled students. Tournaments include your enrolled students, but if you invite other studios, you’ve moved into a whole different situation that needs its own insurance.

The second “uh-oh” happened when I read the policy for the girl’s studio. It required that the studio report tournament attendance and pay an extra premium for it. The studio owner didn’t know that — and consequently didn’t report it and didn’t pay. (Note that some insurance companies require the report and extra premium, and others don’t.)

This was getting uglier by the second. The next legal step was to reach for the waivers. The host of the tournament had a specific waiver for participation in the competition, but it did not include protection for the attending studio. The girl’s studio did not have any specific waiver for tournament attendance, and it was not mentioned in its standard waiver.

Meanwhile, the studio was paying for its own lawyer. In that state, good lawyers run $300 an hour.

In the end, the tournament host and the studio had to declare bankruptcy because they couldn’t afford to keep defending themselves. Knockout.

The upshot: Make sure you know what protection you have, what protection you don’t have and whether you can buy any extra protection that you need.


To contact Beth A. Block, send an email to [email protected] or call (800) 225-0863.


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