Skip to content

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

Jun 10, 2014, 10:59 AM EST

lawsuit gavel

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Wives of Jim Edmonds and Josh Hamilton to appear on The Real Housewives of Orange County

    Jan 31, 2015, 11:25 PM EST

    Los Angels Angels newly acquired outfielder Hamilton talks with reporters as his wife, Katie, looks on during a news conference in Anaheim Reuters

    Meghan King Edmonds and Katie Chadwick Hamilton, the wives of Jim and Josh respectively, will appear on the tenth season of The Real Housewives of Orange County.

  2. Red Sox plan to use Brandon Workman out of the bullpen

    Jan 31, 2015, 10:40 PM EST

    Brandon Workman Brandon Workman

    Brandon Workman will enter spring training as a reliever, attempting to grab a scarce spot at the back of the Red Sox bullpen.

  3. A.J. Preller still in touch with the Phillies about Cole Hamels

    Jan 31, 2015, 9:50 PM EST

    Cole Hamels Cole Hamels

    The Padres are still interested in Phillies ace Cole Hamels, though they may not be able to put together an enticing enough deal to attain him.

  4. Freddie Freeman: “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

    Jan 31, 2015, 9:00 PM EST

    Freddie Freeman Freddie Freeman

    The Braves may have pawned off many of their productive players, but Freddie Freeman still thinks they’ll compete in 2015.

  5. Someone apparently got Jayson Werth’s autograph in jail

    Jan 31, 2015, 8:10 PM EST

    Washington Nationals v New York Mets Getty Images

    Jayson Werth signed an inmate handbook for someone during his stay in jail in Fairfax, Virginia.

  6. Remembering Mr. Cub

    Jan 31, 2015, 7:10 PM EST

    Ernie Banks Ernie Banks

    Ernie Banks, who played 19 seasons in the major leagues, made an enormous impact on the game of baseball. That has been evident in the wonderful stories that have been shared over the last week.

  7. Rays sign Ronald Belisario to a minor league deal

    Jan 31, 2015, 6:05 PM EST

    Ronald Belisario AP

    The Rays added some depth, signing reliever Ronald Belisario on Saturday. It appears they’ll be adding infielder Alexi Casilla as well.

  8. Cubs sign Mike Baxter

    Jan 31, 2015, 5:30 PM EST

    Mike Baxter AP AP

    Baxter appeared in four games with the Dodgers last season and owns a .225/.331/.342 batting line in the majors. He’ll always be aces with Mets fans, though.

  9. Angels and Garrett Richards avoid arbitration with one-year deal

    Jan 31, 2015, 4:39 PM EST

    Garrett Richards AP

    Richards emerged as one of the best pitchers in the American League last season before tearing his left patellar tendon in August.

  10. Orioles sign Mark Hendrickson, invite him to major league camp

    Jan 31, 2015, 4:11 PM EST

    mark-hendrickson-orioles

    Hendrickson turned 40 last June and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2011, but he still hopes to continue his playing career.

  11. Padres have discussed trade for Brewers’ Luis Sardinas

    Jan 31, 2015, 3:15 PM EST

    Luis Sardinas Getty Getty Images

    Padres general manager A.J. Preller has been very active on the trade front this offseason, but he might not be done yet.

  12. Chris Davis opens up about his Adderall suspension: “It was a moment of weakness”

    Jan 31, 2015, 2:05 PM EST

    Chris Davis AP AP

    Orioles slugger Chris Davis was on hand for the team’s annual FanFest today and opened up about the 25-game Adderall suspension which put an end to his disappointing 2014 campaign and left him on the sidelines during the playoffs.

  13. Brewers say “not much has happened lately” in trade talks for Jonathan Papelbon

    Jan 31, 2015, 12:40 PM EST

    Jonathan Papelbon AP

    The Brewers remain in the market for a closer, but trade talks for Papelbon don’t have much momentum at the moment.

  14. Former closer David Aardsma to throw a showcase for teams on Monday

    Jan 31, 2015, 11:25 AM EST

    David Aardsma AP AP

    Aardsma pitched exclusively in the Cardinals minor league system last year, but he’s hoping to get back on the radar in 2015.

  15. Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is another step closer to signing with an MLB team

    Jan 31, 2015, 10:10 AM EST

    cuba hat

    While MLB still needs to give their approval, it appears that Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is one step closer to finally signing with a team.

  16. MLB.com names Byron Buxton as baseball’s top prospect for second straight year

    Jan 31, 2015, 8:56 AM EST

    Byron Buxton Getty Getty Images

    Buxton repeats as MLB.com’s top prospect despite an injury-plagued 2014.

  17. Neal Cotts almost retired before signing with the Rangers in 2012

    Jan 30, 2015, 10:50 PM EST

    Neal Cotts Neal Cotts

    Neal Cotts battled numerous injuries and nearly called it quits before the Rangers signed him to a minor league deal in 2012.

  18. Joe Kelly said he’s going to win the 2015 AL Cy Young Award

    Jan 30, 2015, 9:40 PM EST

    Joe Kelly Joe Kelly

    Joe Kelly has some bold words for non-believers.

  19. Yasiel Puig: “[Juan] Uribe’s a fatty”

    Jan 30, 2015, 8:30 PM EST

    Yasiel Puig Yasiel Puig

    Yasiel Puig meant it in a good way!

  20. Rockies sign Omar Quintanilla and Rafael Betancourt

    Jan 30, 2015, 7:20 PM EST

    Rafael Betancourt Getty Images

    The Rockies addressed their depth on Friday, signing reliever Rafael Betancourt and utility infielder Omar Quintanilla to minor league deals.

Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. D. Mesoraco (2763)
  2. G. Richards (2455)
  3. J. Werth (2431)
  4. I. Suzuki (2364)
  5. A. Ogando (2310)