Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Sunday, June 27, 2004

More on the Duty Owed at Sporting Events: Earlier this month, a Massachusetts appellate court ruled that a professional baseball team does not have a duty to warn fans of the "obvious risk" of a foul ball being hit into the stands.

Now, a New York appellate court has used another baseball case to rule that the assumption of risk doctrine applies not only to active observers, but also to bystanders at sporting events. The case, Sutton v. Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association Inc., dealt with a person who was not watching a soccer game and a player that was not playing in a game.

    Records show that D. James Sutton was attending a soccer tournament in 1999 and had just watched one of his son's games. He walked past another field where several players from a rival club were warming up. His son's team had a tent set up 30 or 40 yards behind the goal to provide a shady resting place for the players when they were not on the field.

    Sutton contends he was getting a sandwich out of a cooler when a practicing player kicked the ball. The ball missed the goal and struck Sutton in the chest, knocking him off his feet, and he injured a knee, he said. He sued the league and the player.

Unlike the Massachusetts court, which ended the analysis at the 'duty' question, the New York court relied on the assumption of risk doctrine. For guidance, the appellate panel looked to a 1981 case, Akins v. Glens Falls City School District, 53 NY2d 325, which said there is always some risk that a spectator at a baseball game will get hit with a ball, and owners of baseball parks do not need to install fences along the baselines or shield the walkways to rest rooms and other facilities.

The court in the present case analogized the plaintiff's activity with a baseball fan that gets up to go to the bathroom. The court wrote:

    Just as the owner of a baseball park is not responsible for the spectator who leaves his or her seat and walks through a potentially more hazardous zone to reach a bathroom or concession stand, thereby assuming the open and obvious risk of being hit by a ball, defendants here cannot be held responsible for the risk assumed by plaintiff when he, aware that players were active on the field, left the sidelines and stood in the tent positioned in an arguably more dangerous zone behind the goal line.

The court seems to have gotten this one correct. An observer at a soccer tournament must constantly be aware of players and errant balls. It would be the same at any youth baseball park. I was getting ready to umpire a game a few years back when I was struck with an errant throw by a player warming up for the next game. To be certain, it hurt and could have caused major injury, but it was my fault. I knew the players were warming up and that they could not be relied on to be accurate. I should have been paying attention and was not. This seems to be a similar situation, and while it is unfortunate that this individual was hurt, the blame cannot fall on anyone other than himself.

You can read the opinion here.