Premises Liability Claims at the Ballpark

When you attend a baseball game with your family, are you at risk of sustaining a serious injury? If you do get hurt, can you bring a premises liability lawsuit, alleging that the owner of the stadium or the team was negligent? These are just a couple of the questions that have been floating around since recent headlines concerning baseball spectator injuries have become prominent. For instance, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times reminded readers about the horrific injuries suffered by a woman at Fenway Park in Boston after being struck by a broken bat.

While such injuries are not common at baseball stadiums and other professional sporting events, they do happen. The Los Angeles Times article linked the recent accident at the Red Sox Stadium to a similar incident at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles just a few years prior. And a recent article from U.S. News & World Report indicated that a Chicago Cubs fan had to be carried out of the stands on a stretcher after being struck by a foul ball. These are just a few examples of recent injuries that fans have suffered at baseball stadiums, and similar incidents have occurred at other professional sporting events as well, such as at hockey games. When injuries from broken bats or baseballs occur, can injured fans file lawsuits to seek compensation?

Understanding Premises Liability and the Duty of Care

In order to think more carefully about liability for spectator injuries at sporting events, it is important to understand some basic points surrounding premises liability and baseball. Generally speaking, premises liability law emphasizes that property owners generally must keep their properties free of serious hazards that could cause injury to another person. The degree of care that a property owner owes depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • The purpose of a person’s visit to the property;
  • The status of the injured person;
  • Where the person’s injury occurred on the property; and
  • How the person got injured.

Typically, property owners owe a high duty of care to “invitees,” or people who come to a property for a purpose related to business. Property owners owe a slightly lesser duty of care to a “licensee,” who visits a property for social reasons. Trespassers usually are not owed a duty of care, although in some jurisdictions, trespassers are also owed a duty of care. Given that baseball spectators buy a ticket and come to the stadium to watch a game they have paid for, those spectators will typically be owed the highest duty of care as “invitees.” However, there is a wrinkle in this premise when it comes to baseball and other sporting events.

Assumption of the Risk or Negligent Property Owners?

As an article in the UCLA Law Review explains, something known as the “baseball rule” means that “stadium owners owe the ‘limited duty’ of providing screened seats for as many fans as can reasonably be expected to desire them.” Some courts look at the baseball rule as its own entity, while others link it to the “assumption of risk” doctrine, which is an affirmative defense for a property owner who is being sued for negligence. The “assumption of risk” doctrine essentially says that a plaintiff knew about injury risks when engaging in an activity and accepted those risks by deciding to engage in the activity anyway.

There are some complex differences between the “baseball rule” and the “assumption of risk” doctrine that have to do with contributory negligence, both limit (or in some cases negate) a stadium owner’s liability. Should theses doctrines apply to an injured baseball fan? Many safety advocates argue that spectators should be treated as “invitees” and should have the expectation of safety from foul balls and broken bats when they visit a ballpark even if the back of their ticket warns them of the dangers of sitting in the ballpark during the game.

Thinking About Safety at Sporting Events

What can fans reasonably expect of team and facility owners in order to feel safe at a sporting event? According to a report in Bloomberg Business, foul balls alone injure around 1,750 baseball spectators every year. That number does not include patrons who suffer injuries from broken bats, and it certainly does not take into account the number of spectator injuries reported at other sporting events. Rather than an owner of a stadium or the team owing only a limited duty of care to patrons (such as providing nets over a limited amount of seats), they may need to add increased netting to protect more fans, such as what was done at numerous hockey venues. With shifts in the law, stadium owners may begin thinking about installing additional safety features to their premises.

In the meantime, if you or someone you love suffered an injury at a sporting event, you should contact an experienced premises liability lawyer to learn more about your rights.

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