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Ice hockey player's death – could a prosecution really follow?

01 February 2024
Courts have historically been reluctant to attach criminal liability for injuries sustained in the field of play in contact sports, but could the death of an ice hockey player change this? 


On 28 October 2023 Adam Johnson, a professional ice hockey player for the Nottingham Panthers sustained a fatal neck injury during the game after coming into collision with the skate of an opposition player ("D").

Police investigation

South Yorkshire Police arrested D on suspicion of manslaughter and released him on bail pending further investigation. As part of their investigation the police will need to consider whether D is criminally liable for the death of Mr Johnson. Whilst no further action could be taken, it is possible that D could be charged with manslaughter. This can be committed in two ways (1) gross negligence manslaughter - which is "conduct that was grossly negligent given the risk of death, and did kill"; and (2) unlawful act manslaughter - which is "conduct taking the form of an unlawful act involving a danger of some harm that resulted in death". The police have indicated that the investigation could take some time given the unprecedented nature of the circumstances.

The law

The threshold for establishing criminal lability in gross negligence manslaughter is extremely high. It is not sufficient to show that D's actions were simply reckless, as the negligence must be 'truly exceptionally bad'. Similarly, a successful prosecution for unlawful act manslaughter would require evidence of an intentional act that is unlawful or dangerous – which in these circumstances would mean an act outside the normal rules of the game.

English courts have historically been reluctant to attach both civil and criminal liability for injuries sustained in the field of play in contact sports as participants are deemed to consent to an inherent and foreseeable risk of harm. Additionally, it has long been established that most organised sports have "their own disciplinary procedures for enforcing their particular rules and standards of conduct" (Lord Woolf, R v Mark Barnes [2004] EWCA Crim 3246) and therefore matters are rarely referred for criminal prosecution unless the conduct "is sufficiently grave to be properly categorised as criminal".


On 1 November 2023 HM Coroner for South Yorkshire (Western) opened an Inquest into the death of Mr Johnson. The Inquest was adjourned, as the criminal investigation was ongoing.

A coroner has a duty to make Prevention of Future Deaths ("PFD") reports to people, organisations, a local authority or government department or agency where the coroner believes that action should be taken to prevent future deaths. Unusually, prior to the Inquest being heard, HM Coroner issued a PFD report highlighting her concern that future deaths may occur if neck guards or protection are not worn.

At the time of this tragic incident, there was no mandatory requirement for players over the age of 18 to wear neck guards or protectors. Following the PFD report, the focus has shifted to player safety. England Ice Hockey, the governing body, has already announced that neck guards are mandatory from 1 January 2024 for all forms of ice hockey at all levels below the elite league. The International Ice Hockey Federation have announced a similar attention with a date for compliance to be announced. The "activities" for which guards must be worn include all training as well as games and tournaments.

This is a case to watch closely as it has the potential to set a new precedent for criminal liability in sports.

DWF's regulatory team has experience and expertise in Criminal Investigations and Inquests. We also offer a crisis response service and experienced team of lawyers, PR specialists, investigators and clinical psychologists are available 24/7 to offer advice in the immediate aftermath of an incident and to guide you through your crisis.

If you have any questions, please reach out to our authors below.

We would like to thank Danielle Gaylard for their contribution to this article.

Further Reading