The football fans out there will remember the controversial call at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game earlier in the NFL season. Most Packers fans blame that loss solely on a referee's blown call. I follow football and basketball year round, so I've seen my share of missed or blown calls throughout the years. But the referees have been in the news more than usual lately, so that got me thinking --Can a referee be sued for malpractice?
I did some legal research and found an interesting case from the Iowa Appellate Court. Jim Bain was a Big Ten basketball referee during the 1980s. He was reffing the Iowa vs. Purdue game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on March 6, 1982. During the final seconds of that game, Bain called a foul on an Iowa player that gave Purdue two free-throws in the closing seconds. Purdue hit the shots to win the game, knocking Iowa out of contention for the Big Ten championship. Most Iowa fans blamed Bain for the loss, asserting that the call was clearly blown.
John and Karen Gillispie operated a sports memorabilia store in Iowa City. Shortly after that game, the Gillispies began selling "Jim Bain Fan Club" t-shirts. The shirts had the picture of a man with a rope around his neck. Upon learning of these t-shirts, Jim Bain sued the Gillispies for an injunction to prohibit future sales of the shirts and for actual and punitive damages.
The Gillispies counterclaimed for referee malpractice. They claimed that Bain's conduct in officiating the Iowa-Purdue game was below the standard of competence required of a professional referee. The Gillispies claimed that Bain's malpractice cost Iowa the Big Ten title, and, as a result, destroyed the market for Big Ten championship memorabilia at their store, costing them more than $175,000 in future profits.
The Court found that Bain did not owe any duty of care to the Gillispies. Their damages for lost profits were not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Bain's acts as a referee. The Court held that referees are in the business of applying rules to athletic contests, not creating a marketplace for others. It was therefore beyond the scope of Bain's duties as referee to make calls at all times with the profits of businesses worldwide in mind.
This is obviously a very limited holding that basically says fans can't sue referees. However, what if the University had sued Bain because Iowa did not make the NCAA tournament? Surely, that is a foreseeable consequence of a blown call by a referee. What if the Iowa player who was called for the foul had sued? What if that loss cost him a spot in the NBA draft or money on his first NBA contract? Aren't NBA rookies paid more money if they were Big Ten champions in college?
I don't represent any sports franchises or universities, so I have not done this research. My next research project will be whether I can file a coaching malpractice case against Lovie Smith the next time he wastes a timeout on a horrible challenge.
HERE is a link to the Bain case.