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The Baseball Rule and Fan Safety At The Ballpark

By Michael Galati

According to analysis conducted by Bloomberg News, over 1,700 spectators per season are injured by baseballs that come whizzing off the bats of Major League Baseball (MLB) players. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-09-09/baseball-caught-looking-as-fouls-injure-1750-fans-a-year). Unfortunately, foul balls routinely result in severe injury to fans. For example, in 2014, Stephanie Taubin was struck in the face while attending a game at Fenway Park. She suffered facial fractures and neurological damage. (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/08/27/brookline-woman-suing-john-henry-after-foul-ball-injury-fenway-park/fBmQGQZKh6ntVD55JrljvL/story.html). This year, Tonya Carpenter was hit in the face by the shard of a shattered bat, causing what police initially described as "life-threatening injuries." (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3122448/Baseball-fan-seriously-hurt-hit-face-shards-shattered-bat-Fenway-Park-leaves-hospital-week-treatment.html). Further, a foul ball also struck Stephanie Wapenski in the face, requiring at least 30 stitches. When asked for her recollections of the incident, Wapenski stated that she recalled seeing the ball, but had no time to react. (http://abcnews.go.com/US/quiet-woman-struck-baseball-fenway/story?id=32408853).

Many of the fans struck by bats and balls in the course of a game end up paying large medical bills for their injuries, but very few sue the teams and stadiums for damages. The "Baseball Rule," as it has become known, is responsible for making fans forgo litigation in these situations; as when Monte Hoskey decided not to sue the Kansas City Royals after his four-year old daughter suffered a skull fracture from a foul ball. The Baseball Rule releases stadium owners from liability for injuries caused by balls or bats flying into the stands, so long as screened seating is available for a reasonable number of spectators. It relieves stadium owners of almost all liability for foul ball and broken bat-related injuries. Moreover, the Baseball Rule has been an accepted defense by most courts. (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/06/07/woman-injured-fenway-friday-remains-serious-condition/vtiDNIz51ruBsxTpd0BJwM/story.html).

Given the severity of the injuries sustained by fans, the inevitable question arises: Should the Baseball Rule continue to be allowed to protect ballpark owners from liability, or should MLB step in and mandate that ballparks implement further safety precautions? Players are taking notice of the injuries, and have requested additional protective netting when negotiating the last two collective bargaining agreements. (http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2015/06/07/report-players-requested-more-protective-netting-but-were-denied-by-owners/). After a fan was struck with a foul ball and carted off the field at a Detroit Tigers' game, ESPN.com quoted Detroit Tigers' pitcher Justin Verlander as saying: "It seems like something happens once a game, where a ball just misses a fan and, inevitably, it's always small kids or women, you know. It's just something that needs to be looked at, and hopefully it doesn't get to the point where something really serious happens before there's an adjustment made." (http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/13486481/fan-hit-foul-ball-detroit-tigers-home-game-texas-rangers).

Attorneys familiar with the Baseball Rule and the role it plays in lawsuits over the years think its time for a change. Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association said: "the Baseball Rule is ripe for change . . . it has to be tossed out. " (http://sportslawinsider.com/baseball-and-broken-bats-woman-injured-at-fenway-park-may-have-limited-recovery-rights/). Steven Adelman, a venue safety attorney, described the Baseball Rule as "harsh and old fashioned." Id. These comments from Healy and Adelman could signify a changing of the tide for the Baseball Rule. Id.

Perhaps these cries for change have not fallen upon deaf ears. While the Baseball Rule is widely accepted and has provided protection for most stadium owners, a few fans have attained small victories against the odds. In Rountree v. Boise Baseball, LLC, the plaintiff, who was seated in a screened in area, got up to talk to another fan in a non-screened area and lost his eye after being hit in the face by a foul ball. (154 Idaho 167, 170-73, 296 P.3d 373, 376-79 (2013)). The Idaho Supreme Court stated that while it had the authority to adopt the Baseball Rule, the court felt it more prudent for the adoption of such a rule to be left to the legislature. Id. A jury will decide the stadium owner's liability for Rountree's injuries in an upcoming trial.

Similarly, the Georgia Court of Appeals declined to adopt the Baseball Rule where a six-year old girl suffered a skull fracture and brain injuries as a result of being hit with a foul ball. (Atlanta Nat. League Baseball Club, Inc. v. F.F., 328 Ga. App. 217, 217-18, 761 S.E.2d 613, 614 (2014)).

With both fans and players speaking out about the issue, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said that he and the owners have examined the relevant information and are discussing the possibility of additional protective netting. (http://m.mlb.com/news/article/145776688/rob-manfred-discusses-ballpark-safety-netting). Unfortunately, this promise of action may have come too late. A class action lawsuit has been filed against the MLB and Commissioner Manfred for their failure to implement measures to better protect fans. The class action suit, which seeks only injunctive relief, alleges that anyone who is not in screened seating is in the "Zone of Danger." Those individuals within the Zone of Danger have sufficient standing to join the lawsuit. The lead plaintiff in the case wishes to force MLB to install netting from foul pole to foul pole in all major and minor league parks. (http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2015/07/13/a-class-action-law-suit-was-filed-against-mlb-today-seeking-the-installation-of-more-netting/).

While the class-action suit's Zone of Danger concept may be far reaching, the suggested remedy could be the one sought by all parties; as by adding netting from foul pole to foul pole, owners will face even less liability. As a result, the court system will be able to prevent horrible injuries to and frivolous negligence claims by fans of America's pastime.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 25, 2015 2:38 PM.

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