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12 Mar 2019

The “Baseball Rule” and Its Effect on Personal Injury Claims

Any true sports fan will tell you that being in the stadium is far better than watching the action on TV.

But a trip to the ballpark does carry some hazards - and we're not talking about triple-decker jalapeno nacho plates. If you're a personal injury lawyer, you've probably heard about the so-called "baseball rule."

The baseball rule is a maxim that can release stadium owners, teams, players, etc. from liabilities related to things like foul balls, player collisions and the occasional wayward foam finger.

As you'd imagine, however, it's far more nuanced than that.

While actual statutory laws relating to the baseball rule only exist in a few states, as this article from TheSports.biz points out, there are some precedents that influence decisions nationwideso let's do a little spring training, shall we?

Origins of the Baseball Rule

Though there are earlier case examples, the strongest origins of the baseball rule probably appear in Crane v. Kansas City Baseball & Exhibition Co., 153 S.W. 1076 (Mo. Ct. App. 1913). You can read details on the case here at RavelLaw.com.

The dispute involved a spectator who had a choice between a seat protected by netting and a seat that wasn't. The spectator chose the latter and was injured by an errant foul ball during the course of the game. The spectator sought damages, but the court ruled in the favor of the baseball team.

The two key observations came out of this ruling decision.

First, it basically said the spectators should be aware of the risks inherent in attending a baseball game.

Second, it pointed out that the team exercised reasonable care by providing netting to allow sufficient protection for folks who didn't want to sit in an area prone to foul balls.

Responsibilities of Stadiums and Teams

The key here is "reasonable care."

To explain what that meant in the Crane decision, the court referenced 1910s King v. Ringling (yes, Ringling of circus fame), in which a board came loose during a windstorm and injured a spectator. Read a summary of the Ringling case here.

But reasonable care is basically just a fancy way of saying that the leagues and stadiums must exercise a degree of responsibility to ensure spectators are protected from regularly occurring events inherent to the game, race, etc. 

What does that entail exactly? The answer is a rock-solid "it depends." 

More accurately, it's an answer that's constantly evolving; take professional auto racing for instance.

In 1955, a horrific racing accident at the French 24 Hours of Le Mans resulted in the deaths of 83 spectators. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the racing series, team owners, auto manufacturers and tracks all resolved to make auto racing a safer endeavor. 

Improved track barriers, new vehicle safety measures and other innovations were implemented to limit the risks taken by both drivers and spectators. 

Did they completely eliminate the danger involved in watching a race? Certainly not; but it did promote the importance of routinely reviewing safety standards. For instance, chain-link fences that were acceptable safety measures a few decades ago have now given way to stronger, energy-absorbing barriers.

Ergo, what is considered "reasonable care" for a specific event or venue is always adapting to the times.

Responsibilities of Spectators

Flip over your ticket and there's a good chance you'll see language addressing the legal responsibilities of either the league or stadium (or both) regarding your relative safety.

Even a brief analysis will tell you that your ticket merely grants you entry into an event. The language probably stops short of assuring your complete safety and there's likely no promise of a specific outcome—even if an outcome may cause emotional harm. (So, New Orleans fans, good luck trying to sue the officials for blowing that pass interference call against Los Angeles in the 2019 conference championship.)

As mentioned above, the stadium, league or team should be doing its best to offer reasonable care in adequate safety protection for patrons, which can include things like safety netting, proper exit signage, structurally sound bleachers, etc. 

But, by accepting a ticket to a specific event, the spectator tacitly acknowledges that there are some inherent risks involved—which can make it difficult to seek damages resulting from an injury sustained through the normal course of the event.

More importantly, the spectator has a responsibility to adhere to the venue's code of behavior. If a spectator is leaning over barriers, climbing light poles or sitting in a restricted area, they can probably abandon any legal recourse for injuries. The same can hold true if the fan is intoxicated.

Current Legal Impacts

Unfortunately, even with reasonable care and spectator diligence, injuries and deaths still occur due to the sheer unpredictability of a game or race.

As a result of the unique nature of each incident, it's difficult to build an exact set of legal precedents to buttress a specific case. That also makes accurately predicting any outcome extraordinarily difficult.

To further compound matters, prior incidents have raised significant questions that challenge the baseball rule. For instance:

  • Does a toddler understand the inherent risks of a baseball game?
  • What if a fan's vision is blocked, rendering them unable to react to a fly ball or other debris?

More importantly, cases that could have invoked the baseball rule are often settled out of court and sealed to avoid any negative publicity—denying legal professionals potentially valuable new precedent in the process.

If you're preparing a personal injury case that hinges on the baseball rule, you'll probably have to show negligence on the part of the league, team or venue, while at the same time demonstrating that your client was caused real harm by an incident outside the norms of the particular event.

In other words, make sure your bases are covered.