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HOW IS THE APPLICATION OF THE “BASEBALL RULE” AFFECTED BY THE EXPANSION OF NETTING IN MAJOR LEAGUE BALLPARKS?

| Apr 25, 2016 | Firm News |

Major League Baseball this past off-season issued a recommendation that all teams lengthen the safety netting at ballparks to increase fan safety.  http://m.mlb.com/news/article/159233076/mlb-issues-recommendations-on-netting.  Tampa Bay was one of the teams that heeded the new recommendations; “I don’t think we’re taking anything away from the fans who are there,” said Rays vice president of operations/facilities Rick Nafe. “My own personal observation — I have sat in seats in that area that are unprotected by a net, and I tend to enjoy the game a lot more when I know there’s a net in front of me. You know, some of those seats you have to pay attention constantly. That’s just a personal opinion. But I don’t think we’re going to be taking anything away from the fans.”  http://m.mlb.com/news/article/159233076/mlb-issues-recommendations-on-netting.

Despite their best intentions, a Rays fan was struck and seriously injured by a baseball fouled by a Rays player that passed through the protective netting and struck her in the face.  http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/fan-rays-game-struck-foul-ball-protective-netting/story?id=38442152

Apparently, at the bottom of the seam where the new netting joined the old, triangular gaps were left to provide access to the camera wells. The gaps angled sideways from the field, and the width of the opening facing the field was no more than 6 inches, which made it seemingly unlikely for a ball to get through. http://www.tampabay.com/news/fan-struck-by-foul-ball-is-in-the-hospital-rays-add-netting-to-close-gap/2273551  The Rays have already taken steps to close off those gaps, and the injured fan is recovering from facial injuries that required surgery.

The “Baseball Rule” has long protected baseball teams, as well as hockey teams and other sports from lawsuits for injuries suffered by fans when they are struck by projectiles that leave the field of play or rink.  It is a specialized negligence rule that has been in effect since the early twentieth-century.  Patrons who chose unprotected seating areas were routinely denied recovery.  Such decisions based their decisions on two facts: that the danger of errant balls was common knowledge and that spectators sitting in unscreened seats assumed the risk of injury. See, e.g., Brisson v. Minneapolis Baseball & Athletic Ass’n, 185 Minn. 507, 240 N.W. 903 (1932); Kavafian v. Seattle Baseball Ass’n, 107 Wash. 249, 181 P. 677 (1919). Thus, the rule established a fact-specific standard of care for injuries caused by errant balls at baseball stadiums by accounting for the open and obvious nature of the risk that batted balls pose to fans.  Maisonave v. Newark Bears Prof’l Baseball Club, Inc., 185 N.J. 70, 78 (2005).

NEW JERSEY AND THE BASEBALL RULE

In New Jersey and several other states, the operator of a sports venue must provide protected seating “sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion,” and second, the operator must provide protection for spectators in “the most dangerous section” of the stands. The second component of this limited duty may ordinarily be satisfied by the operator providing screened seats behind home plate in baseball and behind the goals in hockey. New Jersey follows a hybrid approach, patrons in the seating areas of a stadium are subject to the limited duty “Baseball Rule”,  while those in other areas of the venue are protected by the business invitee rule, which provides that a landowner “owe[s] a duty of reasonable care to guard against any dangerous conditions on his or her property that the owner either knows about or should have discovered.” Maisonave v. Newark Bears Prof’l Baseball Club, Inc., 185 N.J. 70, 85 (2005) Where the operator of a stadium provides screened seats for the members of the public that desire such protection, and the protection fails, is the operator liable for the injuries that result?  The answer is determined by the particular facts of the incident.  A Florida jury may have to determine whether leaving the triangular gap described in Marc Topkin’s story for the Tampa Bay Times constituted a failure by the Rays to take reasonable care to protect their patrons.  If this happened in New Jersey and you were a juror – what would you decide?

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