Sports Law Blog
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Monday, June 14, 2004
Baseball Owners Not Liable for Foul Ball Injury: A person of "ordinary intelligence" understands that a risk of attending a baseball game is that batted balls could enter the fan area. This conclusion is at the heart of a Massachusetts state court decision that held the Red Sox owed no liability to fan injured by a foul ball at Fenway Park in 1998. Ten minutes after arriving at Fenway, the plaintiff was struck with a foul ball, shattering her facial bones and putting her in critical condition. Her medical bills totaled nearly half a million dollars. The plaintiff claimed that the team had a duty to warn spectators of the dangers, and being unfamiliar with baseball, she did not understand the inherent risks of sitting close to the field.
The court disagreed, and held that the Red Sox did not have a duty to warn spectators of an "obvious" risk.
Viewing the present case through the lens of the defendant's duty, we are persuaded that the potential for a foul ball to enter the stands and injure a spectator who is seated in an unscreened area is, as matter of law, sufficiently obvious that the defendant reasonably could conclude that a person of ordinary intelligence would perceive the risk and need no additional warning. Even someone of limited personal experience with the sport of baseball reasonably may be assumed to know that a central feature of the game is that batters will forcefully hit balls that may go astray from their intended direction. We therefore hold that the defendant had no duty to warn the plaintiff of the obvious danger of a foul ball being hit into the stands.
Because the court held there was no duty, it did not need to address the assumption of risk doctrine or the effectiveness of the disclaimer printed on the back of the ticket. Despite the obvious sympathy for the plaintiff in the case, I believe the court made the correct decision. A spectator approaching within 40 yards of anyone swinging at a moving object should take heed, no matter the setting. Plaintiff most likely felt insulated, as many fans in the stands do, but this should not shift liability onto the team or the stadium.
Of course, one wonders what would have happened in plaintiff had died from the injury (thankfully, she did not). In a similar case from a few years ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the NHL paid a $1.2 million settlement to the family of a little girl that was killed by a puck deflected into the stands. One imagines that the law was on the team and league's side, but both parties likely feared the negative publicity of a drawn-out trial and potential jury verdict. Thus, the settlement. The harsh truth is that whether the plaintiff dies often affects the PR of a case, and thus, the outcome.
But, legally speaking, the court got this one right. If anything is to change, it will be due to policy. The judge, in concluding the case, evinced a hope for just such a change:
Perhaps a more gracious approach would be for major league baseball to elect to internalize the costs of unavoidable injuries sustained by fans through no fault of their own.
I am not so certain such a change would be good. In a perfect world, no one would get hurt, but the baseball owners are no more at fault than is a car manufacturer when their product is involved in an accident due to human error. People assume risks everyday, in everything they do. Chance and risk are unfortunately a part of life, and as unfair as it seems, there cannot always be compensation for the victims.