lawsuit gavel

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

71 Comments

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.

Wilson Ramos helped off the field after suffering an apparent knee injury

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 14:  Wilson Ramos #40 of the Washington Nationals hits a home run in the seventh inning against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC.  Washington won the game 1-0. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Monday night has, unfortunately, been a night of injuries. Joaquin Benoit and Corey Kluber suffered injuries earlier in the evening and now it appears that Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos has suffered an apparent right knee injury.

In the top of the sixth inning, Yasmany Tomas hit a double to right field that scored Paul Goldschmidt. Brandon Drury was on his way to home plate as right fielder Brian Goodwin got the relay throw into first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman threw home but it sailed high. Ramos leaped to grab the ball and came down awkwardly, as MASN’s Dan Kolko describes. Ramos clutched and pointed at his right knee. He was unable to put any weight on it as he was helped off the field. Per Kolko, Ramos struggled to get down the dugout steps.

Pedro Severino came in as a defensive replacement for Ramos. The Nationals should have more on his condition after the game. It’s worth noting that Ramos tore the ACL and MCL in the same knee back in 2012.

With the Nationals headed to the playoffs, this is a bad time to lose Ramos if the injury is indeed serious. He came into Monday night batting .307/.354/.497 with 22 home runs and 80 RBI in 520 plate appearances. He went 1-for-3 with a single before exiting Monday’s game.

Corey Kluber exits Monday’s start with groin tightness

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 12:  Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians reacts during the 87th Annual MLB All-Star Game at PETCO Park on July 12, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Indians ace Corey Kluber lasted only four innings in Monday night’s start against the Tigers, exiting with tightness in his right groin, Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com reports. Kluber had allowed two runs on five hits and a walk with three strikeouts. Both runs scored in the bottom of the second inning on a J.D. Martinez two-run home run.

More should be known on Kluber’s status after the game.

With a week left in the regular season, the Indians are hobbling to the finish line. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were injured earlier this month, forcing the club to get creative with its starting rotation.

The Indians are leading the Tigers 5-3 as of this writing. If they win, they will clinch the AL Central for their first division title since 2007.