Former New York Yankees outfielder Dustin Fowler is suing the Chicago White Sox and the state agency that manages Guaranteed Rate Field, alleging that both were negligent in not securing the unpadded electrical box that he collided with in his major league debut at the ballpark last summer.
Fowler suffered an open rupture of the patellar tendon in his right knee while attempting a catch in right field during the first inning of his first major league game. He was called up from the Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre team just hours earlier to play with the Yankees.
Though Fowler has seemingly recovered from his injuries, he claims to have suffered severe internal and external injuries, as well as mental pain and anguish, both of which resulted in high medical costs.
Professional athletes suffering injuries during games is hardly unusual; however, it is unusual for an athlete to file a lawsuit against the opposing team afterward. In these cases, litigation is difficult because there is an inference that a professional athlete is likely aware of all of the possible injuries that may occur, and thus, assumed the risk of injury by participating in the competition.
Fowler’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, claims the White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority were negligent by not securing the metal box or taking precautions to prevent players from making physical contact with the box.
The suit also alleges the White Sox and the sports authority failed to adequately inspect the right field wall and the electrical box.
The suit alleges that the box was installed “in a manner so as to create a hidden and undetectable hazard” to the players. In failing to properly cover or pad the exposed box, Fowler claims the defendants showed an “utter indifference to or conscious disregard to” his safety.
The complaint states that both the White Sox and the sports authority knew of the unsafe condition and had time to improve it before the incident.
Although rare, lawsuits like Fowler’s have been filed before and players have been successful when they can show that the injury occurred outside the normal risks of the consented-to activity, or when there exists a nonobvious danger. Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471 (1997); Custodi v. Town of Amherst, 20 N.Y.3d 83 (2012).
The seminal case on such matters was decided in the 1970s after Denver Broncos safety Dale Hackbart filed a lawsuit against the Cincinnati Bengals for an injury incurred during a game in Denver. Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals Inc., 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979).
Hackbart suffered a neck fracture when he was struck with an intentional blow to the back of the head by Bengals’ player Charles Clark. The court found for Hackbart, stating that the “general customs of football do not approve the intentional punching or striking of others;” thus, the conduct and resulting injury suffered was outside the normal risks of the game. Id. at 521.
Similarly, former Houston Rockets player, Rudy Tomjanovich, sued the Los Angeles Lakers after he suffered a fractured skull, broken nose, cracked eye socket, tear-duct damage and other facial injuries when Kermit Washington, a former Lakers player, punched him during a 1977 game. Tomjanovich v. California Sports Inc., 1979 WL 210977 (S.D. Tex. 1979).
Though the parties ended up settling, the court stated in a later case that a verdict for Tomjanovich was clearly proper, finding that although he assumed the risk of an accidental hit to the face, the scope of his consent did not extend to an intentional blow where the intent was to injure and the force used was “far greater than necessary to accomplish a legitimate objective within the scope of the play.” Ordway v. Superior Court, 198 Cal. App. 3d 98 (Ct. App. 1988).
As these cases illustrate, the success of Fowler’s claim likely hinges on whether he can prove that his injuries occurred outside the scope of the game.
To further that end, Fowler will likely advance his argument that the box was installed “in a manner so as to create a hidden and undetectable hazard” to him and other players.
Evidence Fowler may produce includes eye witness testimony, expert testimony from stadium engineers, evidence of past injuries or other evidence that the White Sox and the sports authority were aware of the safety hazard and failed to fix it.
Another obstacle Fowler will likely face is proving damages. He will need to overcome the workers’ compensation bar that has proved difficult for similarly situated players in the past.
Collective bargaining agreements and standard player contracts mandate that a team has a duty to provide medical treatment to its athletes.
Therefore, a team will usually absorb the cost of an athlete’s injuries, meaning the athlete likely will not pay for the health care out of pocket.
While most workers’ compensation statutes include statutory exemptions, like allowing a player to bring an action for harm resulting from intentionally injurious conduct, or from fraudulent concealment of material medical information, Fowler may still find it difficult to prove damages where the team covered most, or all, of his health-care costs. DePiano v. Montreal Baseball Club Ltd., 663 F. Supp. 116 (W.D. Pa. 1987); Krueger v. San Francisco Forty Niners, 234 Cal. Rptr. 579 (Ct. App. 1987).
Additionally, Fowler was traded to the Oakland A’s shortly after the injury last year and was recently reinstated from the disabled list and may start spring training with the team this year.
Depending on whether or not Fowler is able to salvage his career, he may have a claim for compensation for loss of future earnings as well.
In any case, Fowler likely faces an uphill battle in proving his claims as well as his damages. If Fowler’s lawsuit does advance, it is likely the parties will reach an out-of-court settlement.