Jim Juliano - Spring 2015
Inside stadiums and outside in their parking lots, superheated rivalries can spark fan violence, which is often fueled by alcohol. When serious injuries occur, team and stadium owners could face litigation and possibly verdicts into the millions, as has been illustrated by the recent Bryan Stow case. What it boils down to is that an owner has a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent injury on the premises when he or she is reasonably aware he or she needs to control the conduct.
For the brutal beating of Stow outside Dodger Stadium after a Los Angeles Dodgers game, a jury awarded Stow, a San Francisco Giants fan, $18 million, with $14 million of that from the Dodgers organization. As Stow's lawyer described it, "Dodger Stadium got to a place where it was a total mess, there was a culture of violence and beer sales were off the charts." Plaintiff Stow also alleged that the Dodgers had a poor track record for securing the stadium, that the poor security exposed Stow to criminal acts of a third party and that security showed a poor response time of 10 to 15 minutes after the attack.
A key distinction in virtually all litigation turns on whether the incident was reasonably foreseeable. Something is reasonably foreseeable when the action of spectators is so likely based on past experience that a reasonably attentive property owner should have taken steps to prevent or reduce the risk of harm that might have resulted. Venue operators in sports and entertainment alike can face circumstances where an excited crowd increases foreseeability, resulting in a greater duty by the owner for more effective crowd control.
For example, a plaintiff sued the city of New York for injuries suffered during a stampede that erupted during a Diana Ross concert in Central Park. The court noted that a plaintiff generally would not be able to bring a claim based upon insufficient police protection, but would be able to bring one that was predicated upon the city's negligence as owner and operator of the park, with the obligation to provide an adequate degree of supervision of spectators at the event. The court also held that a jury could find that a riot or stampede would be reasonably foreseeable in the absence of proper crowd control.
An event would not be reasonably foreseeable if there is a superseding act, such as crimes by third parties. However, some jurisdictions have ruled criminal acts to be foreseeable if there is evidence of prior crimes. Five factors come in to play: 1) proximity, 2) publicity, 3) recency, 4) frequency and 5) similarity. The Bryan Stow case will provide an even more recent and clearer example of how teams can still be liable despite criminal actions.
Also important is reasonable duty of care, which, for instance, imposes a duty on the stadium owner to deal with crowd control where there is inadequate crowd management and the owner is reasonably aware he or she needs to control the conduct.
Violence among fans before and during sporting events is certainly not a new phenomenon, and some would say that the problem has gotten exponentially worse over the recent years. In the wake of the Bryan Stow incident, a California legislator even proposed a law that would prohibit violent fans from being permitted to attend professional games for five years. California settled on including in its fan behavior statutes a requirement for sports venues to post in numerous places a text message number and telephone number to contact arena security.
The NFL has instituted a program where it places undercover police officers in opposing teams' gear in an attempt to catch fans that subject fans from visiting teams to mistreatment. However, unlike the California proposed bill, the NFL does not prohibit unruly fans from attending future games if the fans pass a four-hour online course, and pass a code of conduct exam.
Unfortunately those actions would only take place once an act has been committed. Reasonable foreseeability and duty of care are both principles team owners should live by. Not only do they provide a solid defense, but more important, they show concern for the fans and could prevent trouble in the first place.
This article includes research by law students Brad Straka and Zack Turner under advisors Peter Carfagna and Jim Juliano