Spring is here bringing with it the thoughts of another baseball season. It can also bring with it thoughts of death and severe injuries. While there have been only two fans so far killed at professional league ballparks, at least 49 fans have died at amateur games and countless others have been severely injured in the stands by foul balls. Strangely enough, if you are injured or killed in the stands by a foul ball, you generally have no legal remedy.
Almost all states, including New York and New Jersey follow what is called the limited liability rule. This is set forth in the 1981 New York Court of Appeals case of Akins v. Glens Falls City School District. In that case, plaintiff attended a high school baseball game. The field was equipped with a 24-foot tall and 50-foot wide backstop behind home plate but only a three-foot high fence along the baselines. She decided to watch the game standing behind the three-foot fence and was struck in the eye by a sharply hit foul ball, causing her serious and permanent injury. The plaintiff sued the school district.
Although the jury awarded damages and the Appellate Division affirmed, the Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed the complaint. The court held that the proprietor of a ballpark need only provide screening for the area behind home plate where the danger of being struck by a ball is the greatest. If he does this, he has fulfilled his duty of reasonable care and cannot be liable. It took into consideration that many fans, like me, want to watch a game without their view being obstructed or obscured by a fence or a net. You cannot reasonable encircle the entire field.
New Jersey actually has a statute on this adopted in 2006 to reverse a 2005 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Maisonave v. Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, Inc. In that case, a man was attending a Newark Bears baseball game and was struck by a foul ball while on the concourse of the stadium while buying a beer. Although the court did adopt the limited liability rule for the stands, it held it did not apply to someone injured in any other area of the stadium, such as the food courts. The reasoning was that since the fan at that point was not paying attention to the game, he cannot protect himself.
This did not go down well with business interests or the state legislature, since there were at least 6 minor league teams in New Jersey. Shortly after the decision in Maisonave, the legislature reversed it by passing the New Jersey Baseball Spectator SafetyAct of 2006. The statute states that spectators at professional baseball games are presumed to know they can be hit by a ball and have assumed this inherent risk. Therefore, as long as the owner provides protection for fans in the most dangerous sections of the stands, i.e., behind home plate, and posts a sign warning spectators of the inherent risks of being hit by a ball or a bat, the owner will have absolutely no liability, no matter the extent of the injury and even if death results.
You better watch out if you go to a baseball game!
Kim Steven Juhase, ESQ.
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