Skip to content

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

Jun 10, 2014, 10:59 AM EDT

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. Hisashi Iwakuma has a Grade 1 lat strain, will miss 2-4 weeks

    Apr 25, 2015, 11:05 PM EDT

    Hisashi Iwakuma Hisashi Iwakuma

    Hisashi Iwakuma could miss up to a month after being diagnosed with a Grade 1 strain of his right lat muscle.

  2. Alex Rodriguez was impressed by Matt Harvey in Saturday’s loss

    Apr 25, 2015, 10:15 PM EDT

    Alex Rodriguez Getty Images

    Alex Rodriguez is one of many major leaguers Matt Harvey has impressed.

  3. Adrian Beltre sent Garrett Richards an invoice for three broken bats

    Apr 25, 2015, 9:25 PM EDT

    Adrian Beltre Getty Images

    Adrian Beltre humorously sent an invoice to Garrett Richards for the three bats he broke on Friday.

  4. Play of the Day: Freddy Galvis makes superb diving grab and throw for the out

    Apr 25, 2015, 8:52 PM EDT

    Freddy Galvis Freddy Galvis

    Freddy Galvis threw his hat into the ring as an early contender for Play of the Year.

  5. Adam Wainwright exits Saturday’s start with an apparent Achilles injury

    Apr 25, 2015, 8:37 PM EDT

    Adam Wainwright Adam Wainwright

    Adam Wainwright suffered an apparent Achilles injury after hitting a pop-up in Saturday’s game against the Brewers.

  6. Joel Peralta dealing with a “dead arm”, could go on the disabled list

    Apr 25, 2015, 8:05 PM EDT

    Joel Peralta Getty Images

    The Dodgers’ thin bullpen could get even thinner if Joel Peralta needs to go on the disabled list.

  7. Rays designate Allan Dykstra for assignment

    Apr 25, 2015, 7:10 PM EDT

    Allan Dykstra Allan Dykstra

    The Rays designated slugger Allan Dykstra for assignment to make room for Everett Teaford on Saturday.

  8. Video: Kevin Plawecki connects for his first major league home run

    Apr 25, 2015, 6:15 PM EDT

    Kevin Plawecki Getty Images

    Watch Kevin Plawecki swat his first major league homer.

  9. Jose Fernandez ready to face hitters for first time since Tommy John surgery

    Apr 25, 2015, 5:01 PM EDT

    Jose+Fernandez+Miami+Marlins+v+San+Diego+Padres+x1Pnh0XpK7ol Getty Images

    The Marlins have stumbled out of the gate with a disappointing 6-11 record, but they entered play today on a three-game win streak and here’s some good news about their rehabbing ace.

  10. Former Cubs catcher, Expos manager Jim Fanning dies at 87

    Apr 25, 2015, 4:27 PM EDT

    jim fanning

    Fanning was involved in baseball for more than 60 years.

  11. Blue Jays release left-hander Ricky Romero

    Apr 25, 2015, 3:48 PM EDT

    ricky romero jays getty Getty Images

    It looked like the Blue Jays had one of the best young left-handed pitchers in the game after Romero compiled a 3.60 (119 ERA+) across his first three seasons in the majors, but his career veered off track after 2011 due to control problems and knee issues.

  12. Matt Albers headed to DL with finger injury suffered in benches-clearing brawl

    Apr 25, 2015, 3:05 PM EDT

    Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Getty Images

    Albers suffered a compression fracture of a finger on his throwing hand during Thursday’s brawl.

  13. Report: Rangers will pay Josh Hamilton less than $7 million; deal includes opt-out after two years

    Apr 25, 2015, 2:16 PM EDT

    josh hamilton angels getty Getty Images

    The Rangers will reportedly only be responsible for less than $7 million of Hamilton’s remaining contract.

  14. Anthony Rendon begins minor league rehab assignment

    Apr 25, 2015, 1:58 PM EDT

    anthony rendon getty Getty Images

    Anthony Rendon suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee in early March, but he’s finally close to joining the Nationals.

  15. Trevor Bauer scratched from start due to illness

    Apr 25, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT

    Trevor Bauer AP

    TJ House will start in his place against Detroit.

  16. Suspensions announced for Thursday’s brawl between the White Sox and Royals

    Apr 25, 2015, 12:24 PM EDT

    Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox Getty Images

    Six players were suspended for Thursday’s benches-clearing brawl between the White Sox and Royals. Yordano Ventura got the longest suspension with seven games.

  17. Video: Nelson Cruz hits 459-foot blast for MLB-leading ninth home run

    Apr 25, 2015, 12:01 PM EDT

    Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners Getty Images

    Nelson Cruz just keeps on mashing for the Mariners.

Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. J. Hamilton (3947)
  2. A. Russell (3658)
  3. D. Smyly (3394)
  4. D. Travis (3320)
  5. B. Zobrist (3173)