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.

Gary Sanchez stays red hot, homers again as Yankees blank Mariners

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 22:  Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees hits a home run against the Seattle Mariners in the first inning at Safeco Field on August 22, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
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Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez has wasted no time acclimating himself to major league competition. Since getting called back up on August 3, Sanchez has smacked nine homers and driven in 16 runs in a span of 18 games. In fact, since August 3, no hitter has homered more than Sanchez and only Charlie Blackmon and Brian Dozier have matched him, Katie Sharp of River Ave Blues notes.

One of those homers came in Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Mariners at Safeco Field. It was a first-inning blast off of Hisashi Iwakuma, quickly giving the Yankees a 1-0 lead. They would go on to win 5-0. Sanchez finished 2-for-3 with a pair of intentional walks, a double, and the homer.

Some more fun facts about Sanchez, courtesy Sharp:

  • Sanchez is the first Yankee in club history with nine home runs in his first 21 career games [Link]
  • Sanchez is the third American League player in the last 100 years to hit at least nine home runs in his first 21 career games, joining George Scott and Alvin Davis [Link]
  • Sanchez and Joe DiMaggio are the only Yankees with 15 or more extra-base hits in their first 21 career games [Link]

Sanchez was considered the fifth-best prospect in the Yankees’ minor league system, according to MLB Pipeline. In the majors, he’s carrying a .389/.450/.847 triple-slash line in 79 plate appearances. He has also thrown out five of seven would-be base-stealers.

Katie Ledecky made Bryce Harper hold her medals while she threw the first pitch at Nationals Park

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 13:  (BROADCAST - OUT) Swimmer, Katie Ledecky of the United States poses for a photo with her five medals on the Today show set on Copacabana Beach on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images
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American swimmer Katie Ledecky, fresh off of winning four gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janiero, Brazil, was in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday night to throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Nationals’ game against the Orioles.

As NHL.com’s Katie Brown notes, Ledecky’s favorite player is Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, who was on the field with her. So what did she make him do? Hold all of her medals while she threw out the first pitch.

Harper has his fair share of hardware, including a Rookie of the Year Award and an MVP Award, but no gold medals. For shame.