lawsuit gavel

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.

Marc Rzepczynski signs two-year, $11 million contract with Mariners

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 9: Marc Rzepczynski #23 of the Washington Nationals looks on before pitching against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the sixth inning during game two of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 9, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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After rumors of the deal surfaced on Thursday, the Mariners officially signed veteran reliever Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year, $11 million deal on Friday night. Per a report by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, the lefty is due $5.5 million in 2017 and 2018.

The signing marks the left-hander’s fourth trade since July 2015. He bounced from the Indians to the Padres at the 2015 trade deadline, then to the Athletics in the offseason, then to the Nationals in late August of 2016. Last season, he pitched to a career-best 2.64 ERA during 47 2/3 innings with the Athletics and Nationals, but hit an all-time low with 5.5 BB/9 that fed into a 1.59 K/BB rate. While the 31-year-old’s split against right-handed batters are underwhelming (a career .277/.377/.431 line with 123 walks and 24 home runs), he’s held lefties to a respectable .222/.291/.298 line with just 52 walks and eight homers.

Adding Rzepczynski to the bullpen should check off another to-do item for Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto, though FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman notes that the club is still likely to pursue an additional reliever and a No. 4 starter before the offseason comes to a close.

2016 Winter Meetings Preview

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - FEBRUARY 26: The Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is seen along the Potomac River February 26, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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The baseball world will descend on Washington D.C. — well, the Maryland suburbs of Washington, at the Gaylord Resort at National Harbor — this weekend for the 2016 Winter Meetings. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Twenty free agents from a class of 191 have signed thus far. Among the notable: Yoenis Cespedes, Edinson Volquez, Neil Walker, Josh Reddick, Bartolo Colon, and R.A. Dickey. That, of course, leaves a ton of notables left, including Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Turner, Jose Bautista, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Trumbo, Mark Melancon, Rich Hill and a host of others. Here is our rundown of this offseason’s top free agents if you’re curious. As you have come to expect from us, we’ll have a writeup of everyone who signs, faster than almost anyone else will.

Despite the sheer number of available free agents, this is an historically thin free agent class in terms of talent. That means that, for a team to improve significantly, they may be better served by making a trade. We’ve seen a couple already, most notably the deals which sent Taijuan Walker to the Diamondbacks, Jaime Garcia to the Braves and Brian McCann to the Astros. Most experts believe there will be plenty more this winter, and the ball could really get rolling on that in the next week with guys like Andrew McCutchen, Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson and Brandon Phillips on the block.

Another major activity of the Winter Meetings is the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee vote. Except, this year, there is no Veterans Committee, at least in name. It’s now the “Today’s Game” committee. Here are links to breakdowns of the candidacies of all ten men on the ballot the new committee will consider:

Harold Baines
Albert Belle
Will Clark
Orel Hershiser
Mark McGwire
George Steinbrenner
Davey Johnson
Lou Piniella
John Shuerholz
Bud Selig

Trade deals, free agent negotiations and Hall of Fame votes take place behind closed doors at the Gaylord Resort. One of the major public activities of the Winter Meetings is when all 30 of the managers meet and greet the press. This year’s new faces are Torey Lovullo with the Diamondbacks, Rick Renteria with the White Sox and Bud Black with the Rockies. Brian Snitker, now the permanent manager of the Braves, will get his first go-around at the managerial cattle call. I’ll be in the scrum for a lot of these guys — they do them two at a time so I can’t see everyone — and will let you know if they say anything fun.

Outside of the transactions and the Hall of Fame stuff, we have the more mundane Winter Meetings business. And a lot of it. Indeed, the vast majority of the people at the Meetings aren’t there for transactions. They’re there to network, seek jobs and discuss the business of baseball like any other industry convention. Ever year we hear about a rule change or a proposal for future rule changes at the Meetings, though this year’s brand new Collective Bargaining Agreement should overshadow that. We’ve already discussed the major points of that and, yesterday, I speculated that, as time goes on, the way this agreement was reached could lead to some serious strife going forward, particularly on the union side. Expect to hear some anonymous rumblings about all of that in the next few days, from players, agents and other interested parties who may not be all that pleased with how it goes.

The final event of the Winter Meetings is the Rule 5 Draft, which will take place at 8am on Thursday morning. You likely have no idea who most of the players who will be selected are, but here’s a good place to start your research on that. If your team takes someone in the draft, the most important thing to know is that he’ll either be on the big league roster all year or he’ll have to be returned to his original team. Well, they could be stashed on the disabled list with phantom injuries so they won’t have to be returned, but no team would ever do that, would they? Perish the thought.

So, yes, there’s a lot to be done. I’ll be on the scene at National Harbor, bringing you all the best hot stove business we have to offer and, as usual, some more fun odds and ends from baseball’s biggest offseason event. As they used to say in radio, tune in to us and rip off the dial. Or, at the very least, keep a tab open to us and refresh a lot.