Update, Nov. 20: Following the meeting of major league baseball owners this week, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said that more netting to protect fans from flying bats and foul balls was discussed, and specific recommendations for the 2016 season might be made at the next owners' meeting in January.
Major league baseball owners will be meeting this week and according to media reports, the issue of more netting to protect fans is likely to arise, given this summer's increased profile of bat-and-ball injuries. The recent certification as a class action of a lawsuit against Commissioner Rob Manfred and major league baseball by an Oakland A's fan seeking more netting at all major league and minor league baseball parks may affect the timing of any action by the owners. The owners and legal counsel will likely consider very carefully any decision within the context of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says the fan's seats, along the first base line, are in an area it calls the "Danger Zone," that is, the stretch from home plate to each foul pole that is unprotected by netting. The suit itself was filed in July in the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of California, and has moved slowly. But it asks that the additional protection be installed by the 2016-2017 season.
—Nov. 17, 2015
Another ballpark injury—this one fatal, involving a fan who lost his balance while reaching over a railing to catch a foul ball at an Atlanta Braves game—should concern teams, ballpark and arena owners, fans and even vendors. All of them can and should work to prevent such tragedies. Legally Speaking has addressed the issue, from ball and bat injuries to railing accidents and fan violence, for the last decade.
Some of these mishaps fell under the "baseball rule," as discussed in the item below. Others have to do with liability under the law. A fan who falls over a railing is not likely going to be able to recover from the team, unless for some reason the railing was defective or violated building codes. An intoxicated fan who causes injury, to him- or herself or to others, can be cited as a potential danger that should be reasonably foreseeable. In the legal realm, that means the team may have a duty to control the situation so as to protect the fan and others. It is certainly the goal to prevent a tragic accident that might have been avoided.
(See "Are all your bases covered? The bottom line on inside-the-park liability" Summer 2005, and subsequent articles from Legally Speaking at “Past articles” including “Railing accidents: What can you do?” Winter, 2012.)
—Sept. 14, 2015
Discussion of the so-called baseball rule, which grants teams immunity from lawsuits involving ball and bat injuries to fans, has been thrust into the national spotlight because of the severe head injury suffered by a woman struck by a broken bat at Fenway Park June 5.
Many states, including Massachusetts, honor the baseball rule. But in the last two years, at least one court has declined to recognize it. The Idaho Supreme Court sent back to trial a case of a fan who lost an eye after being struck by a foul ball at a Boise Hawks game. The rule places upon the fans the duty to protect themselves from hazards such as being struck by a foul ball or a broken bat, as long as the team takes precautions such as installing netting in front of the most dangerous sections of the ballpark.
The Boston situation could have some impact. First, the timing may be right. Rumblings that ballparks should have a greater duty to protect fans—such as extending netting past the dugouts, instead of just behind home plate—have increased. Second, this latest incident occurred in one of the East Coast's media centers, and was readily reported nationwide before the court of public opinion. It generated headlines such as "Scary Fenway incident puts fan safety in spotlight" and "Time for MLB to make netting changes...."
Moreover, the Fenway incident has a sympathetic victim, Tonya Carpenter, 44. News photos not only showed Carpenter being taken away on a stretcher, but also pictured a young boy, presumably her 8-year-old son who attended the game with her, being comforted by a friend. It was reportedly his first Red Sox game. And the family supplied a picture of the victim with an engaging smile. Intentionally or not, it raised issues of whether the accident would leave her disfigured.
The baseball rule took an odd twist in the case of John Coomer, who suffered an eye injury from a hot dog thrown into the stands by the Kansas City Royals' mascot, Sluggerrr, in 2009. A county jury in 2011 found Coomer was 100 percent at fault, but on appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court earlier this year sent the case back, saying promotional activities were not protected by the baseball rule. A second jury decided on June 17 that neither Coomer nor the Royals were at fault.
It remains to be seen if the thinking among the courts will evolve one way or another. A point of contention is whether the disclaimer on the back of baseball tickets and ballpark signage should absolve teams of responsibility, while such disclaimers do not always work in other venues, such as parking lots or concerts. In any case, the trend seems to be that teams will be held more accountable for protecting fans.
—June 15, 2015