<em>Legally</em> <strong>Speaking</strong>
 
 

 

Update: ballpark liability and the baseball rule
Jim Juliano and Alison C. Healey - Winter 2009-2010

It is well established that baseball stadium owners owe a duty of care to spectators who attend sporting events in their facilities. About half of U.S. states adhere to the baseball rule, which limits the liability of owners who screen the most dangerous areas of parks and areas where fans may be reasonably expected to want protected seats on ordinary occasions. Under the rule, owners generally prevail in negligence suits if they have taken reasonable precautions to protect spectators. Elsewhere in the parks, spectators assume the risks of injury from foul balls and flying bats, which are considered "open and obvious" risks inherent in the game.

As injured spectators continue to file suits, courts are clarifying the application of the baseball rule. Here are a few recent decisions worth noting:

  • In Mantovani v. Yale Univ., 2008 WL 544648 (Conn. Super. Ct. Feb. 6, 2008), the Connecticut Superior Court on Feb. 6, 2008, upheld a jury verdict in favor of defendant Connecticut Baseball Inc. The plaintiff was injured by a foul ball in the right field pavilion at a minor league baseball game. The pavilion had picnic tables with seating that faced away from the field. Prior to trial, the court held that a general negligence rule would apply because the baseball rule applied only to spectators in the stands. The plaintiff argued that the defendant knew about the risk of foul balls in the pavilion and failed to protect or warn patrons, while the defendant denied wrongdoing and asserted that the plaintiff was negligent. The jury found no dangerous or defective conditions in the pavilion and no violation by the defendant of any duties owed to the plaintiff.

  • Similarly, the New Mexico appeals court found last July 31 that a general negligence standard applied to a case involving a fan injured in a picnic area. In Crespin v. Albuquerque Baseball Club LLC, 216 P.3d 827 (N.M. Ct. App. 2009), cert. granted, No. 31,907 (N.M. Sept. 15, 2009), parents of a 4-year-old boy sued the city of Albuquerque, home and visiting minor league baseball clubs and the batter. A ball fractured the boy's skull during batting practice while he was sitting in the picnic area, which was beyond the outfield fence. The court declined to adopt the baseball rule, finding "no compelling reason to immunize (baseball stadium) owners/occupiers."

    The trial court had ruled that all defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law, based on the baseball rule. The appellate court reversed in part, finding that a genuine issue existed as to whether the city and home club breached their duty by failing to protect spectators in the picnic area and warn the plaintiffs about pregame fly balls. Although New Mexico's Supreme Court had referenced the baseball rule in a 1961 basketball case, the appellate court declined to "carve out an exception to the usual tort doctrines for the sport of baseball." The appellate court found that issues of fact existed regarding the actions that the city and the home club reasonably might be expected to take to protect spectators in the picnic area. That decision was appealed, and the New Mexico Supreme Court has granted a review.

Recommended precautions

Whether the baseball rule is the law in your jurisdiction or not, it is good practice to warn spectators of potential dangers—even those inherent in the game.

The following precautions are recommended:

  • Properly maintained screening in the most dangerous areas of the park.

  • Signs throughout the park warning of foul balls and broken bats.

  • A precautionary notice on tickets as well as public address warnings before and during games.

  • The availability of medical help and a system that enables prompt responses to injuries.

  • The New Mexico ruling contrasts with the decision in Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entm't LLC, 180 P.3d 1172 (Nev. 2008) (en banc), a case we wrote about last winter, in which the Nevada Supreme Court held on April 17, 2008, that the baseball rule constituted the entire duty owed by baseball owners-operators to protect spectators from foul balls in a stadium.

    In this case, a spectator suffered serious facial injuries when she was struck by a foul ball while eating in the Beer Garden, a concession area at Cashman Field. The Nevada court found that spectators assume the risks inherent in the game, this spectator had chosen not to sit in a protected seating area and the concession area did not pose an unduly high risk of injury from foul balls. Since the Beer Garden was not one of the most dangerous parts of the stadium, the owner and operator did not have a legal duty to provide screening or take other precautions there.

  • Finally, a case against the New York Yankees, ESPN and other defendants is ongoing. In Correa v. City of New York, 2009 WL 3380018 (N.Y. App. Div. Oct. 22, 2009), a security guard sued the defendants after his right hand was fractured by a foul ball during a nationally televised game. The guard was assigned to sit on a stool at field level in the stands, directly behind home plate. Although that section was screened, the plaintiff alleges that a television camera had been inserted through the netting and that the netting had not been tightly clipped around the camera. A New York appellate court on Oct. 22 recited with approval prior New York law supporting the baseball rule. But it found a question of fact existed as to whether the Yankees failed to establish that the screening provided adequate protection and that the premises were reasonably safe for their employees. The court further found that the defendants' assumption of risk defense presented issues of fact for a jury. An employee assumes the risks inherent in the game, but not enhanced risks. A question in this case is whether the screen was an ordinary or an enhanced risk. The court denied the Yankees' motion for summary judgment, and the case was allowed to proceed.

Other interesting reported cases, not involving the baseball rule:

  • Julio Castillo, a pitcher with the Peoria Chiefs, was found guilty Aug. 4 of felonious assault causing serious physical injury. During a dugout-emptying confrontation in July 2008, Castillo threw a ball toward the Dayton Dragons dugout, but the ball sailed into the stands and injured a spectator.

  • On Aug. 13, Chicago police charged a 21-year-old man with one count of battery and one count of illegal conduct within a sports facility after he threw a beer at outfielder Shane Victorino at Wrigley Field while the outfielder was catching a fly ball. Victorino filed the police report.

  • Several minor children, through their parents as guardians, filed a civil suit against the Newark Bears Sept. 4 for violation of constitutional rights after the Bears security staff allegedly ejected them from a game when they refused to rise for the "God Bless America" performance during the seventh-inning stretch. Among other things, the suit alleges violation of state and federal free speech and discrimination laws.

  • Also worth noting is the decision last Dec. 16 of a North Carolina court of appeals in a case involving a soccer match. The court reversed a trial court's dismissal of a complaint filed by a plaintiff who was injured during warm-ups when a ball left the field and struck her in the head. Although the court reversed the dismissal on the narrow technical grounds of pleading practice, it cited and approved the baseball rule and assumption of risk principles that have been established in baseball cases in North Carolina.

 

 

 
 
 
 

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.

Copyright 2009-2010 by L. James Juliano Jr.
Legally Speaking® is a registered trademark of the law practice of L. James Juliano Jr.