The French Court of Appeal is poised to finalise a controversial legal battle after a civil suit, claiming more than £5m, was launched against former England polo captain Howard Hipwood.

Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA) chief executive David Woodd said the court was due to determine the amount of compensation to be awarded to French merchant banker Alain Bernard.

Bernard suffered serious disabilities after falling from his pony following a ride-off with Hipwood during a match in Deauville on 10 August 1997.

Woodd said Hipwood, as an HPA member, was covered by player-to-player insurance of up to £5m. But as a result of Bernard’s claim — the first of its kind in polo — the HPA is no longer able to obtain this type of cover for its members.

The legal battle, successfully defended at the French Court of First Instance in Caen in September 2000, went as far as the French Supreme Court — equivalent to the House of Lords — when the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision.

In June 2004, Hipwood submitted that the Court of Appeal had failed to consider evidence that he committed no foul, but the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal.

The Supreme Court found Hipwood culpable of “an aggressive act contrary to fair play and sporting spirit, which went beyond the danger inherent to this sport and accepted by players of this sport”.

“We were very surprised and disappointed that the original decision was reversed on appeal,” said Woodd.

He said that a decision by the Court of Appeal on the amount to be awarded was listed for May 2005. Notice was given to the HPA at the end of September that a decision was imminent. But the final amount is still yet to be announced.

Woodd hoped the award would not exceed £5m and said he did not expect the ruling to set a precedent in Britain.

Hipwood, who was playing for Los Tamaraos at the time of the accident, said he felt the legal ramifications of the case went “far beyond polo”.

He added it was absurd that a court could make its decision contrary to those of referees or umpires within a sport.

“I like to believe in fair play, justice and people who do things right,” said Hipwood. “But this is just making up the rules as they go along.”

  • This news article was first published in Horse & Hound (3 November, ’05)

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