Stadium Liability: Can MLB Teams be Held Liable for Injuries Caused by Foul Balls?

In 2013, nearly 75 million Americans attended a Major League Baseball game, the 6 th highest attendance total in the sport's history. In fact, the last decade has produced the ten highest season attendance numbers off all-time. With fans coming out to the ballpark in record numbers, many now wonder if Major League Baseball (MLB) is doing enough to prevent injuries from foul balls that are hit into the stands.

According to a recent study by Bloomberg, there were an estimated 1,756 injuries sustained at MLB baseball stadiums in 2013. That translates to an average of almost three injuries for every four games played. While many of these injuries may be simple bumps and bruises caused by being hit by an errant foul ball, others have not been so lucky. A ball traveling at 80mph is traveling at 117 feet per second. Fans who are sitting close to the action have very little time to spot and react to a fly ball that is heading in their direction. And with the speeds at which the ball is traveling, being hit can lead to severe injuries, particularly if hit in the head.

SEVERE INJURIES CAUSED BY FOUL BALLS

Children are at the most risk of being severely injured by a foul ball.

  • In 2013, a foul ball sent an eighteen month old baby to the hospital
  • In 2011, a twelve year old child was put in intensive care after being struck by a foul ball
  • In 2008, a 7 year old boy was struck in the head by a foul ball at a Chicago Cubs game. He spent a week in the hospital and had brain swelling to the point that doctors considered surgery. He later had to learn how to walk and climb stairs again.
  • In 1970, a fan was killed by a fly ball in Dodger Stadium.
  • Two other fans, one in 1960 and one in 2010, have been killed by fly balls in minor league stadiums.

SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

Major League Baseball does not have a universal policy for protecting fans at the stadium. The league says that each individual team is responsible for "designing adequate backstops, and, depending on local laws and ordinances, displaying warning signs at various places throughout the ballpark." For example, all major league teams have safety netting behind the backstop to prevent foul balls from entering the stands immediately behind home plate. The netting extends along the first base and third base lines, but it is up to each team to determine how far to extend it. Some teams even equip ushers who work seating sections that see a high number of foul balls with pagers to alert first-aid crews when a fan is hit by a ball.

STADIUM LIABILITY & "THE BASEBALL RULE"

Major League teams have always relied on what is known as "The Baseball Rule" to protect itself from liability for fans who are injured as spectators. This rule states that as long as team owners screen the most dangerous areas of the ballpark (such as directly behind home plate), they are not liable for injuries that occur in other parts of the stadium, which are considered "open and obvious" risks inherent in the game. This rule has allowed team owners to prevail in negligence lawsuits filed by injured fans.

But many fans and legal experts are beginning to wonder if the" baseball rule" has become outdated. In this era with smaller ballparks, fans seated closer and closer to the field of play, and stadiums coming equipped with nonstop entertainment distractions on the Jumbotron and other places throughout the stadium, it may be time to re-evaluate what constitutes the "most dangerous" areas n the stadium and what should be the minimum standard to meet "reasonable protections" for fans seated near the field of play.

Some courts are already showing signs of turning the tide. In the past year, appeals courts in Georgia and Idaho have refused to adopt the "baseball rule." The court determined that primary or secondary assumption of risk is not a defense unless the situation involves express written or oral consent. It remains to be seen if other courts follow suit, but these two rulings may give way to a more tradition duty of care that is applied to general negligence principles.

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