Should baseball teams be held liable when foul balls injure fans?

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In most walks of life, whether someone is liable to you for injuries caused by alleged negligence is determined by a judgment call: was the harm foreseeable and did they act reasonably to prevent the harm from occurring? That’s a matter for a jury to decide, and the jury can take all of the specific facts of the case into account in making that determination.

Ballpark operators, however, have typically had a safe harbor that shields them from having a jury decide whether they acted prudently. It’s called “The Baseball Rule,” and it’s a legal doctrine which underpins those little “we’re not liable for you getting injured by flying balls and bats” disclaimers on the back of your ticket.

The way it’s usually formulated by the courts is that stadium owners and operators must provide “screened seats for as many spectators as may be reasonably expected to call for them on any ordinary occasion,” and that if they do that, they’re legally absolved of liability. Typically, providing screens behind home plate and around to each side to some degree puts owners in the safe harbor. In that case, it’s a matter of law, not fact, and the judge will usually dismiss the case before it ever gets to a jury.

That rule has been challenged more and more in recent years. It’s still the majority rule across U.S. jurisdictions, but last year, for example, an Idaho court refused to adopt it in the case of a man injured by a foul ball and allowed a jury to decide whether the ballpark owner acted reasonably based on the facts and circumstances of the case rather than to simply dismiss it per The Baseball Rule. Now, in Atlanta, a family is challenging it in the wake of their six-year-old daughter suffering traumatic brain injury from a foul ball at a Braves game in 2010.

I get asked about The Baseball Rule a lot and I’ll admit that I’ve never felt 100% confident about it either way. On the one hand, baseball’s arguments for it are reasonable: fans actually want to catch foul balls and don’t like sitting behind the screen unless they’re right down low. If you put teams in the legal crosshairs for foul ball injuries and/or mandate that they put screens way down the lines teams will have little choice but to either move fans far from the action or block their view, making the product they’re selling — good seats at a ballgame — far less attractive. No one really wins in that scenario.

On the other hand, the ballpark experience has changed quite a bit since The Baseball Rule was first recognized. There are more distractions from game action. It’s far more of a family product than it used to be and you thus get a lot of little kids who can’t be expected to defend themselves from foul balls in the stands. Parks are also far more full and seats behind the screens are far more expensive than they used to be, making that part of The Baseball Rule in which spectators “may reasonably call” for screened seats potentially unworkable. Teams are often forcing people to choose between being out in the bleachers or paying $250 for a screened seat.

I don’t want to turn ballparks into padded cells, but I also think that the risks, particularly to children, of sitting in unprotected seats down the lines are undersold by teams and under appreciated by fans. It’s dangerous down there. Maybe a good step in between letting ballpark operators off the hook completely and making them liable absolutely is to make them warn fans far more explicitly. To actually publicize to fans what can actually happen to you if you’re hit by a screaming foul ball. To make fans actually assume the risk in the form of an actual waiver instead of the assumed one written on the backs of tickets which are rarely if ever read. Perhaps to make people who take young children to games explicitly disclaim responsibility or else not sit in unprotected seats.

As it is now, the warnings are pretty passive and the risks not as well-known as they could be. And the disclaimer system is something of a joke. Making each of these things more rigorous might have some small costs involved — kid-priced seats so as to identify and differentiate those who would sit in dangerous seats with children? A second piece of paper or an usher with a clipboard taking actual liability waivers? — but those costs pale compared to the sorts of liability awards teams might face if The Baseball Rule continues to be eroded.

And they pale even more definitively compared to the price some people, particularly some children, have paid with their health and even their lives.

The 2017 Yankees are, somehow, plucky underdogs

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There’s a lot that has happened in the past year that I never, ever would’ve thought would or even could happen in America. Many of them are serious, some are not, some make me kinda happy and some make me terribly sad. I’m sure a lot of people have felt that way in this oddest of years.

There’s one thing in baseball, however, that still has me searching my feelings in a desperate effort to know what to feel: The New York Yankees are the postseason’s plucky underdogs.

This is not about them being lovable or likable — we touched on that last week — it’s more about the role they play in the grand postseason drama. A postseason they weren’t even supposed to be in.

None of the three writers of this website thought the Yankees would win the AL East or a Wild Card. ESPN had 35 “experts” make predictions back in March, and only one of them — Steve Wulf — thought the Yankees would make the postseason (he thought they’d win the division). I’m sure if you go over the plethora of professional prognosticator’s predictions a few would have the Yankees squeaking in to the postseason on the Wild Card, but that was nothing approaching a consensus view. Their 2017 regular season was a surprise to almost everyone, with the expectation of a solid, if unspectacular rebuilding year being greatly exceeded. To use a sports cliche, nobody believed in them.

Then came the playoffs. Most people figured the Yankees would beat the Twins in the Wild Card game and they did, but most figured they’d be cannon fodder for the Indians. And yep, they fell down early, losing the first two games of the series and shooting themselves in the foot in spectacular fashion in the process. Yet they came back, beating arguably the best team in baseball and certainly the best team in the American League in three straight games despite the fact that . . . nobody believed in them.

Now we’re in the ALCS. The Astros — the other choice for best team in the American League if you didn’t think the Indians were — jumped out to a 2-0 lead, quieting the Yankees’ powerful bats. While a lot of teams have come back from 0-2 holes in seven game series, the feel of this thing as late as Monday morning was that, even if the Yankees take a game at home, Houston was going to cruise into the World Series. Once again . . . nobody believed in them.

Yet, here we are on this late Wednesday morning, with the Yankees having tied things up 2-2. As I wrote this morning, you still have to like the Astros’ chances given that their aces, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, are set to go in Games 5 and 6. I’m sure a lot of people feel still like the Astros’ chances for that reason. So that leads us to this . . .

It’s one thing for no one to have, objectively, believed in the Yankees chances. It’s another thing, though, for the New York Yankees — the 27-time World Champions, the 40-time American League pennant winners, the richest team in the game, the house-at-the-casino, U.S. Steel and the Evil Empire all wrapped into one — to officially play the “nobody believed in us” card on their own account. That’s the stuff of underdogs. Of Davids facing Goliaths. Of The Little Guy, demanding respect that no one ever considered affording them. If you’re not one of those underdogs and you’re playing that card, you’re almost always doing it out of some weird self-motivational technique and no one else will ever take you seriously. And now you’re telling me the NEW YORK FRIGGIN’ YANKEES are playing that card?

Thing is: they’re right. They’ve totally earned the right to play it because, really, no one believed in them. Even tied 2-2, I presume most people still don’t, actually.

I don’t know how to process this. Nothing in my 40 years of baseball fandom has prepared me for the Yankees to be the David to someone else’s Goliath and to claim righteous entitlement to the whole “nobody believed in us” thing.

Which, as I said at the beginning, is nothing new in the year 2017. I just never thought it’d happen in baseball.