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Woman struck by puck at 2013 Stanley Cup Game has lawsuit dismissed due to "Hockey Act"

The view from Section 115 at the United Center (Photo via A View From My Seat)

With approximately 1:38 left in Game 1 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya received the puck from his defensive partner around the redline and ripped the puck down the left-side boards in an attempt to dump the puck into the Bruins’ zone by firing it high around the glass. However, the puck slipped approximately six inches over the short glass and went out of play. Click here for a video of the play.

Tension was high on the ice during the tie game, but after the puck flew out of play, there was some tension in the stands when people realized that the puck struck Blackhawks season ticket holder Patricia Higgins in the face. Higgins, who was sitting in Section 115, Row 11, and Seat 14 at the United Center that night, received over 20 internal and external stitches, along with a bruised retina, inflammation, and a concussion. She also underwent reconstructive surgery.

The 55-year old physician was in good spirits after the incident, stating “I’ll be fine. Everybody just needs to cheer on the Blackhawks and make them win. Take Tylenol if your head hurts. That’s all I can say.” However, Higgins had a slight change of heart about a year later when she filed a personal injury suit against the owners of the United Center.

In her suit, Higgins alleged that United Center Joint Venture (UCJV), the owners of the United Center, (1) was negligent and (2) acted willfully and wantonly in installing, maintaining, repairing and inspecting the safety nets located behind each goal, mainly alleging that there were gaps and tears in the netting and the owners should have known that the netting was inadequate or needed replacing. The United Center moved for summary judgment dismissing both of Higgins’ counts, which was granted by the Circuit Court of Cook County (trial court). Higgins appealed to the Appellate Court of Illinois (First District, Third Division). Justice Pucinski of the Appellate Division upheld the dismissal in a written decision released in May.

The Defendant was able to successfully argue that it was protected by the Hockey Facility Liability Act (“Hockey Act”), which states:

The owner or operator of a hockey facility shall not be liable for any injury to the person or property of any person as a result of that person being hit by a hockey stick or puck unless: (1) the person is situated behind a screen, protective glass, or similar device at a hockey facility and the screen, protective glass, or similar device is defective (in a manner other than in width or height) because of the negligence of the owner or operator of the hockey facility; or (2) the injury is caused by willful and wanton conduct [, meaning a course of action which shows an actual or deliberate intention to cause harm or which, if not intentional, shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others or their property], in connection with the game of hockey, of the owner or operator or any hockey player or coach employed by the owner or operator.

745 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 52/10

The NHL has mandated that every arena have safety nets in the most dangerous areas of the arena, which is directly behind each goal. This rule was instituted in 2002 after the death of 13-year old Brittanie Cecil, who was struck by a puck while sitting behind one of the goals at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. The Blackhawks introduced safety nets the same season in accordance with the mandate.

Higgins, who was aware of the pre-game announcement and warnings on her ticket regarding dangers of flying pucks, claimed she was sitting “completely behind” the protective netting. But, in reality, she was not sitting in an area directly covered by the netting, sitting just a few feet to the right of it. UCJV admitted that Higgins was sitting behind “protective glass” but only “partially behind protective netting.”

Therefore, Higgins was essentially claiming that the protective netting was not wide enough to protect her, which is directly mentioned as an invalid claim in the first section of the "Hockey Act." Thus, she was unable to satisfy the negligence exception to the Act. The Appellate Division also held that Higgins did not satisfy the willful and wanton conduct exception due to the lack of evidence that the netting was defective. Accordingly, the United Center did not have to pay any damages to Higgins despite her serious injuries.

Illinois' Hockey Facility Liability Act is the only hockey arena specific law in the United States. Most states follow the common law “Limited Duty Rule,” which is sometimes called the “Baseball Rule.” This rule requires that sports arena owners and operators provide protective screening: (1) sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion; and (2) in the “most dangerous” section of the stands (see Schneider v. American Hockey and Ice skating Center Inc.). Basically, an arena operator will not be liable to a patron if they know of certain risks and voluntarily assume or confront those risks.

If the Illinois Court applied the “Limited Duty Rule” in this situation, it is very likely that the case would have been dismissed anyways. Higgins, a season ticket holder, knew exactly where her seat was located and could have decided to purchase season tickets in a location completely behind the protective netting or in a higher section of the arena. Further, there is a general consensus that the “most dangerous” sections of the arena are those directly behind the goal, and the United Center provided adequate protection in this area. There could be an argument that Higgins' seats were in a dangerous part of the arena due to her injuries, but any fluke play can cause a puck to jump out of play and cause injury to a fan.

The moral of the story is that if you’re worried about being struck by a puck at a hockey game, you should sit in the upper deck or in a section directly behind the protective netting because the law won’t protect you in most situations.

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