Spectator Injuries at Sporting Events

Spectator Injuries at Sporting Events

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

America's national pastime has taken a hit over the years as young fans increasingly flock to other sports, leaving baseball diamonds in the dust. One way owners hope to lure fans back is with the retro-ballpark. The ballpark, as opposed to the stadium, is a charming throwback to yesteryear. The main goal? To increase ticket sales by making viewers feel like they are part of the game. These so-called fan friendly venues, though, may put spectators in the path of harm's way. Balls are thrown and hit harder than ever. They can fly into the stands at up to 120 miles per hour. Also, players sometimes lose the grip on their swings, launching wooden missiles that are difficult to spot, let alone avoid.

Is going to a baseball game really this dangerous? Yes and no. Make no mistake, the chance of being hit by flying baseball equipment is real. The few Major League clubs that have released statistics on spectator injuries see around 35 to 50 bumps and bruises annually. Considering there are about 80 home games each season and tens of thousands of fans per game, these numbers aren't so bad. Indeed, Major League Baseball has seen just one death from a foul ball. The death total for the history of professional baseball only reaches five.

Baseball has taken great measures to protect fans, even when spectators would rather risk it. All ballparks are required to have nets shielding the most susceptible seats directly behind home plate. Many safety seekers also argue for expanded netting or plexiglass down the first and third base lines. However, these seats are also some of the most expensive. That's because fans sitting there often hope to catch a "free" souvenir as they root, root, root for the home team.

Bleacher bums beware: most courts assume you know the potential dangers before you settle in for nine innings. Agreeing with nearly a century of legal decisions on baseball, a Massachusetts court recently tossed a lawsuit filed by a woman injured by a foul ball at a Boston Red Sox game. Jane Costa alleged the ball club had a duty to warn her of the danger of balls possibly entering the stands. Her argument struck out with the court. Instead, the court found that such danger is sufficiently obvious. In other words, a person of ordinary intelligence should know the risk and not require additional warning.

As always in the law, there are cases on deck that may prove the exception. Baseball owners watch closely. During a minor league game, one spectator was struck and seriously injured by a foul ball as he waited in line at a concession stand. The New Jersey court permitted the lawsuit to proceed. They reasoned that a fan getting a drink is not the same as sitting in the stands regarding the club's duty to protect spectators.

If an injured spectator cannot successfully sue the ball club for failure to warn, what options exist for the wounded fan blindsided by a ball or bat in the stands? The court in the Red Sox case wrote that injured fans "are left to bear the costs of their injuries, even though they played no role in causing them except by choosing to attend the game." The court was careful to point out that Jane Costa's theory wasn't sufficient for collecting from the ballpark. But they also mentioned that she didn't argue "the [protective] netting should have extended to the area where she was seated, or otherwise question the design of the ballpark." Perhaps the court was offering free legal advice for any future line-up of injured spectators.

Although fan injuries are most common in baseball, it isn't the only sport to deal with spectator liability. Hockey poses the danger of wild pucks flying into the stands. Injuries occur less frequently, though, because of the rink's protective glass. Even so, tragedy can occur, as when a young girl died from being hit by a puck a few years ago. Football has no obvious peril of objects sailing into the crowd. The National Football League intends to keep it that way by fining players who throw souvenir pigskins into the stands.

Sporting events can be fun, rewarding experiences, particularly in the everything-old-is-new-again-retro-ballparks, which are architectural gems for the old ballgame. It is important to understand the risks before you settle too comfortably. Some sections are more prone to flying objects than others, so check it out before you go. And if you are injured, you will likely have little, if any, recourse. If you choose one of the riskier seats, bring a glove to potentially save your fingers or face from a foul. Above all, pay attention, no matter where you sit. The back of your ticket probably tells you that - just don't read it during the game.

Play ball!