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Should baseball teams be held liable when foul balls injure fans?

Jun 10, 2014, 10:59 AM EDT

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In most walks of life, whether someone is liable to you for injuries caused by alleged negligence is determined by a judgment call: was the harm foreseeable and did they act reasonably to prevent the harm from occurring? That’s a matter for a jury to decide, and the jury can take all of the specific facts of the case into account in making that determination.

Ballpark operators, however, have typically had a safe harbor that shields them from having a jury decide whether they acted prudently. It’s called “The Baseball Rule,” and it’s a legal doctrine which underpins those little “we’re not liable for you getting injured by flying balls and bats” disclaimers on the back of your ticket.

The way it’s usually formulated by the courts is that stadium owners and operators must provide “screened seats for as many spectators as may be reasonably expected to call for them on any ordinary occasion,” and that if they do that, they’re legally absolved of liability. Typically, providing screens behind home plate and around to each side to some degree puts owners in the safe harbor. In that case, it’s a matter of law, not fact, and the judge will usually dismiss the case before it ever gets to a jury.

That rule has been challenged more and more in recent years. It’s still the majority rule across U.S. jurisdictions, but last year, for example, an Idaho court refused to adopt it in the case of a man injured by a foul ball and allowed a jury to decide whether the ballpark owner acted reasonably based on the facts and circumstances of the case rather than to simply dismiss it per The Baseball Rule. Now, in Atlanta, a family is challenging it in the wake of their six-year-old daughter suffering traumatic brain injury from a foul ball at a Braves game in 2010.

I get asked about The Baseball Rule a lot and I’ll admit that I’ve never felt 100% confident about it either way. On the one hand, baseball’s arguments for it are reasonable: fans actually want to catch foul balls and don’t like sitting behind the screen unless they’re right down low. If you put teams in the legal crosshairs for foul ball injuries and/or mandate that they put screens way down the lines teams will have little choice but to either move fans far from the action or block their view, making the product they’re selling — good seats at a ballgame — far less attractive. No one really wins in that scenario.

On the other hand, the ballpark experience has changed quite a bit since The Baseball Rule was first recognized. There are more distractions from game action. It’s far more of a family product than it used to be and you thus get a lot of little kids who can’t be expected to defend themselves from foul balls in the stands. Parks are also far more full and seats behind the screens are far more expensive than they used to be, making that part of The Baseball Rule in which spectators “may reasonably call” for screened seats potentially unworkable. Teams are often forcing people to choose between being out in the bleachers or paying $250 for a screened seat.

I don’t want to turn ballparks into padded cells, but I also think that the risks, particularly to children, of sitting in unprotected seats down the lines are undersold by teams and under appreciated by fans. It’s dangerous down there. Maybe a good step in between letting ballpark operators off the hook completely and making them liable absolutely is to make them warn fans far more explicitly. To actually publicize to fans what can actually happen to you if you’re hit by a screaming foul ball. To make fans actually assume the risk in the form of an actual waiver instead of the assumed one written on the backs of tickets which are rarely if ever read. Perhaps to make people who take young children to games explicitly disclaim responsibility or else not sit in unprotected seats.

As it is now, the warnings are pretty passive and the risks not as well-known as they could be. And the disclaimer system is something of a joke. Making each of these things more rigorous might have some small costs involved — kid-priced seats so as to identify and differentiate those who would sit in dangerous seats with children? A second piece of paper or an usher with a clipboard taking actual liability waivers? — but those costs pale compared to the sorts of liability awards teams might face if The Baseball Rule continues to be eroded.

And they pale even more definitively compared to the price some people, particularly some children, have paid with their health and even their lives.

  1. musketmaniac - Jun 10, 2014 at 2:27 PM

    nets would change the game too much for the fan experience. Fans love foul balls, it would cut back on that experience.

  2. musketmaniac - Jun 10, 2014 at 2:29 PM

    its simple. areas at high risk. should be given high warning levels. signs like children might be at risk. or no glove no love(sorry having fun) No Glove No seat.

  3. musketmaniac - Jun 10, 2014 at 2:38 PM

    Two small experiences I have witnessed at ball parks that relate here. years ago I buddy of mine took a line drive to the chest. third or fourth row sitting down the third base line. He told this story a million times blaming it on a vendor and a fan during business in his line of sight. embarrassed because he was the only one in our group with a glove. But I know the truth He was staring at the ball girls assets. The other incident was a foul ball that knocked the popcorn out of ten years olds hand as she was trying to talk to the pirate parrot. Distractions baseball has them add that with the pace of the game, the recipe can be disaster.

  4. musketmaniac - Jun 10, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    that’s a good point moogro. Fans are not the only ones at risk. some of bullpens offer little protection.

  5. tridecagon - Jun 10, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    I had a similar situation come up just the other day. Was playing soccer in an adult recreational league at the local park. A family was crossing behind my goal to get to their car, not really paying attention to our game, and an errant shot drilled a 3-year-old girl right in the head. Her parents seemed less concerned than I would have expected, but I don’t think they really even saw it – it wouldn’t surprise me if she suffered a traumatic brain injury.

    What’s the liability picture there? Personally I think the parents should have been paying some attention, but is it incumbent on the league to find ways to keep people away from the field?

  6. stupidusername - Jun 10, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    Hire some people like this to patrol the stands:
    http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/05/27/fans-in-chicago-can-catch-a-flying-bat-with-one-hand/

  7. mikhelb - Jun 10, 2014 at 5:25 PM

    It takes a lawyer to convolute something as simple as “you assume the risks of sitting in a place where foul balls/bats can hit you”, whether you accept it or not, depends on you. If you do not want to take the risk then you’ll buy your kids tickets to where you feel secure.

    And while I agree baseball it is a familiar experience, nowadays it is harder for kids to buy tickets to attend a game by themselves like we used to do 20-30 (and more) years ago. As a kid i always wanted to sit as near the field and the players as possible, thinking of fielding a screaming foul line drive and asking x star to sign it after the game. Nowadays a kid needs to field the security guys each player has when they are abandoning the premises. As a whole, baseball is becoming impersonal, out of touch with reality… that’s what happens when millionaires play ball.

  8. rpearlston - Jun 10, 2014 at 5:59 PM

    It’s simple to me. In a baseball game, balls get hit and go wherever the laws of physics dictate that they go. . Bats get swung, and once in a whole, they go flying, and whether they are intact or not, they will head in the direction dictated by the laws of physics. Nothing there can be changed.
    We assume risk every time we cross the street. In fact, we assume risk everywhere we go, no matter where, when or why. That includes the ballpark.
    We’re warned to do something here, and when we don’t do it, people get hurt. But it’s their own negligence that’s putting them in harms way. After all, there most important instructions for anyone at the ballpark is identical to the most important single instruction given to all umpires – keep you eye on the ball.

  9. mazblast - Jun 10, 2014 at 6:52 PM

    If you told fans which seats are safer than others, you’d have the lawyers out in force, screaming, “That means some are DANGEROUS, so we demand MONEY!!!”

    Over fifty years ago, my father told my brother and me, “Always pay attention to the ball, no matter what else is happening. And if it’s coming your way and you can’t catch, duck out of the way.” Dad was far too practical for today’s world, I guess.

  10. jdillydawg - Jun 11, 2014 at 12:59 AM

    Life is not risk free. It’s incumbent upon us all to watch out for ourselves.

    Lawyers just muck up the works.

  11. stlouis1baseball - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    I wish I could say I am surprised we are having a discussion about the liability of ball clubs with respect to errant foul balls. But I guess that is the world in which we currently live. Some changes are for the better…others not so much. In this particular case…from where I sit it’s pretty simple. You go to a game…you accept that liability. Every park I have ever sat in (in seats down either line) have signs that specifically warn against “foreign objects” flying into the stands. That sign is good enough for me.
    But let’s not stop there…let’s post them all over place to also include home run balls.
    Fair enough?

  12. mkprz - Jun 11, 2014 at 1:17 PM

    I would hope MLB teams would help any medical expenses as they have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on their team, but if you are afraid of a foul ball, guess what? Don’t sit near the foul lines of near the backstop.
    Common sense.

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