At the Twins-Yankees game on Sept. 20, a 2-year-old girl was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Yankee third baseman Todd Frazier and was rushed to the hospital for treatment.
Though recent updates indicate the girl’s condition is improving, the incident has reignited the long-standing legal controversy surrounding Major League Baseball and legal liability for foul-ball injuries and fan safety.
Many fans are struck by balls and bats at games each year. While most only suffer minor injuries, a few have been critically injured or killed. The more tragic results include a 14-year-old boy who died four days after he was hit on the left side of his head at Dodger Stadium in 1970 and a 39-year-old woman who died a day after she was struck in the temple by a foul ball at a minor league San Angelo Colts game in Texas in 2010.
The lack of liability for injuries usually receives attention after incidents like these occur, but as news quickly fizzles, so does the conversation surrounding liability.
However, fan injuries continue to occur, and lawsuits and litigation are pursued. Additionally, the baseball experience has changed dramatically over the past several decades. As a result, it may be time for baseball to be more proactive in addressing fan safety.
For more than a century, MLB teams have been shielded from liability due to a limited duty referred to as the “Baseball Rule.” Courts have long recognized the Baseball Rule, which generally states that teams are only required to provide protective screening to fans seated in especially dangerous zones, which includes seats behind and near home plate. Crane v. Kansas City Baseball & Exhibition Co., 168 Mo. App. 301 (1913); Akins v. Glens Falls City School District, 53 N.Y.2d 325 (1981).
The underlying policy behind the Baseball Rule is that fans seated near home plate face a clear risk of unavoidable danger and would not have time to react if a foul ball or bat came their way. However, fans seated in other locations are viewed as assuming the risk of foul ball injuries or being contributorily negligent by accepting a seat that may pose the risk of danger, instead of buying seats that are behind a net or screen. Quinn v. Recreation Park Association, 3 Cal.2d 725 (1935).
Many advocates argue, and the present case exemplifies, that young children are not capable of appreciating the risk of an injury at a MLB game. Young children are likely not in control of where they are sitting nor are they capable of defending themselves against a ball or bat.
However, children, as well as adult fans, in similar instances continue to lose lawsuits over foul ball injuries with courts consistently finding in favor of the teams and citing the Baseball Rule.
In Lawson v. Salt Lake Trappers, the Utah Supreme Court ruled against a 6-year old girl who was hit by a foul ball while sitting behind first base and roughly 140 feet from home plate. There was no protective screening in that part of the ballpark and, as the court noted, the girl and her family did not buy tickets with seats in a protected area.
The team was found to have met its duty, since it provided screening behind home plate, but the girl and her family were not seated in that particular zone. Lawson v. Salt Lake Trappers Inc., 901 P.2d. 1013 (Utah 1995).
The defenses to pro baseball’s liability do not stop there. In addition to the assumption of risk and contributory negligence defenses, teams will often argue that fans contractually relinquished their right to sue over a foul ball injury when they purchased their ticket and entered the ballpark.
On the back of MLB tickets is language that expresses that the ticket holder “assumes all risk and danger incidental to the game.” This includes the “danger of being injured by equipment, objects or persons entering spectator areas.” Likewise, during the game, announcers oftentimes alert fans to pay attention to their surroundings and signs around the ballpark state the same.
As modern courts continue to uphold the Baseball Rule, it is increasingly difficult for plaintiffs to prevail against teams or facility owners for batted ball injuries. As such, it may be time to re-evaluate the century-old rule.
The reality is that the game itself, and the manner in which it is consumed, has changed dramatically from the time in which the Baseball Rule was established. Attending an MLB game in 2017 means fans routinely checking their phone (with many teams now or planning to incorporate the in-game experience with mobile devices), taking photos and being distracted by team promotional activities and other in-park entertainment.
While it is hard to blame teams for adapting to societal changes, the accompanying danger is that fans are increasingly distracted and less likely to pay attention and have time to react to balls or other objects that travel into the stands.
This, coupled with the consistent rate of injuries, suggests that it may be time for MLB to take further action. Initial steps may already be in progress, with MLB recently recommending that teams expand their netting to the steps of each dugout.
This week the Yankees announced that they will extend there netting in the offseason.
MLB’s recommendation may also have legal consequences. If the most recent victim does choose to pursue legal action, her legal team will likely argue that if MLB believes such netting is appropriate, it should have been in place at the Yankees-Twins game where she was injured.
Understand, however, that any subsequent remedial measures MLB may take will not be admissible in court as evidence of their liability in this particular instance.
In addition to the MLB recommendation, we may see legislative action aimed toward resolution of the Baseball Rule in the near future. New York legislators have recently introduced a bill that would require netting in ballparks that seat more than 5,000 people.
Additionally, on Wednesday, an appellate court is set to hear from Andrew Zlotnick, a New York real estate developer who suffered extensive injury to his vision and face in 2011 while attending a Yankees game.
Zlotnick sued the Yankees, lost, and now is appealing the lower court decision, arguing the Baseball Rule should not apply given that his injury occurred on a rainy day and, he contends, the Yankees umbrella policy was both inadequate and dangerous.
Discussions on fan safety at MLB games after incidents hit headlines have not remained salient in the public discourse in the past. However, with the frequency of injuries and litigation, MLB may recognize that further expansion of protective screening in ballparks could not only benefit fans, but it would also save MLB the time and expense it will spend litigating and settling lawsuits as incidents of injuries due to balls and bats leaving the field of play continue.