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Ballpark liability update—primarily good news
Jim Juliano - Winter 2008-2009

On the ballpark liability front, the past year or so has brought mostly good news for owners and operators.

Courts have reinforced the validity of the baseball rule and the broader assumption of the risk doctrine. Recent decisions indicate the baseball rule is being applied consistently in a number of jurisdictions.

Here are some highlights:

Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entertainment LLC

The Supreme Court of Nevada upheld a limited duty rule, another name for the baseball rule. This rule requires baseball stadium owners and operators to provide enough protected seating for spectators who may be reasonably expected to want protected seats on ordinary occasions. It also requires owners and operators to provide protection for all spectators in the most dangerous parts of ballparks, that is, those areas with unduly high risks of injury from foul balls—usually identified as those directly behind home plate. As long as the owner and operator satisfy these requirements, the court stated, a spectator assumes the risks that are inherent to the game.

In this case, a woman suffered serious facial injuries when she was struck by a foul ball while eating in a concession area at Cashman Field. The court said the concession area did not pose an unduly high risk of injury from foul balls.

Roberts v. Boys and Girls Republic Inc.

A spectator at a Little League game walked near an informal on-deck batter area and was injured by a swung bat. A New York appellate court found that the spectator assumed the risk because the on-deck activity was inherent to the game. The court said assumption of the risk posed by a swung bat does not require thorough knowledge of the sport because the risk of injury is obvious. A ballpark owner has no duty to protect from such a risk, as negligence is not a cause of action if a spectator has assumed a risk.

Recommended precautions

While the baseball rule limits owners’ and operators’
liability, the following precautions are advised:

  Print warnings about foul balls and flying bats on tickets, and post warnings throughout the ballpark.

  Make sure screening behind home plate and anywhere else it is used is in excellent condition, and have regular inspections that are well documented.

  Make public address announcements about risks before and during games.

  Promptly respond to injured spectators, and provide medical help.

The doctrine of assumption of the risk has many forms in court opinions. One description is that spectators and participants assume the risk of dangers inherent to the game. Thus, the business operator does not owe them a duty of care. Under the baseball rule, the spectator assumes the risk, but the owner has a duty to provide the protected seating described above.

Harting v. Dayton Dragons Professional Baseball Club LLC

An Ohio appeals court ruled that a spectator assumed the risk of a foul ball injury even when the Famous San Diego Chicken distracted her during a game. The court said that mascots and their antics are common during games and that the plaintiff had the duty to protect herself from ordinary risks inherent in the sport.

Cohen v. Sterling Mets LP

A vendor sued the New York Mets for injuries suffered when he was struck by a fan who was diving for a shirt that the team had launched into the stands. An appellate court held that the vendor assumed the risk of being injured by the fan.

Another case worth noting is Demelio v. Playmakers Inc. —not because it upholds the baseball rule but because it highlights the line that needs to be drawn between risks that are inherent to baseball and risks that aren’t. If a court questions whether the risk is truly inherent, the baseball rule may not apply.

In this case, a New York appellate court last April held that issues of fact existed as to whether a 14-year-old player’s risk of injury was enhanced by the design or operation of a batting cage—specifically, a post that caused a batted ball to ricochet into the boy’s eye. The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

A note of caution: The baseball rule is not the law of every jurisdiction, and some jurisdictions have yet to squarely rule on spectator liability issues.

Alison C. Healey contributed research and analysis for this article.

 
 
 
 
 

This website contains general information that should not be considered legal advice or legal opinion concerning individual situations. Legal counsel should be consulted for specific advice.

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