Take Me Out to the Ballgame

I recently watched a segment of Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports on HBO that had to do with injuries caused by foul balls in major league ballparks. The program featured the stories of many victims who had sustained gruesome injuries and it also documented the failure of Major League Baseball to protect its fans.

On March 29, 2018, the week following the HBO program, The New York Times ran a lengthy story on the same issue. According to HBO and The New York Times, a study in 2014 found that 1750 fans per year are injured by flying objects (batted or thrown balls and broken bats) in major league games. Many of those injuries were to the face and head. A layperson would probably assume that the injured fans are compensated by the teams or by Major League Baseball. That is most definitely not the case. Almost all lawsuits against baseball teams and Major League Baseball have been dismissed based upon legal precedent established 105 years ago in a Missouri case. In that case the court ruled that because the victim had chosen a seat in an unprotected section, he had “assumed the ordinary risks of such position.” This legal doctrine is called “assumption of the risk.”

Since 1913, there has been a disclaimer on the back of every ticket to every Major League Baseball game that says:  “The holder assumes all risk and danger inherent to the game of baseball, whether occurring prior to, during or subsequent to, the actual playing of the game, including specifically (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by thrown bats, fragments thereof, and thrown or batted balls, and agrees that the (Name Of Club) are not liable for injuries resulting from such injuries.” This disclaimer and the court cases upholding it as a defense to liability has been dubbed the “baseball rule.”

A man named Andy Zlotnick was seriously injured in Yankee Stadium in 2011. A foul ball hit him in the face crushing his left eye socket, fracturing his jaw and permanently impairing his vision. He made a claim, but was met by the “baseball rule.” He lost. However, Zlotnick wouldn’t stop legally (he appealed and lost again) or in the court of public opinion. Zlotnick’s plea for more fan protection was gaining attention, but not really getting action, until a 2 year old child was hit in the head at Yankee Stadium. She suffered a broken nose, an orbital fracture and bleeding on the brain. Injuring a 2 year old on national television was finally enough to get the attention of Major League Baseball. The Commissioner recommended extending the netting in ballparks to the near end of each dugout. This is being done and is helpful, but the length and height of the netting is still woefully inadequate.

In case you are thinking you will be able to dodge a batted ball, HBO ran an experiment by throwing balls from a pitching machine at people who were seated behind a clear plastic shield. The balls were thrown at 95mph. Even though they were expecting the ball, not a single person reacted in time to protect themselves. Some batted balls are travelling up to 130mph and most fans are not paying close attention to every pitch. Fans in real life have almost no chance of protecting themselves from a hard hit foul ball.

From Major League Baseball on down, the people who know baseball and run the leagues know that a batted ball can kill or maim a spectator, and that the spectators do not fully appreciate the full extent of the danger. The fact that the law has not heretofore imposed liability should not be a license to violate common sense safety rules.

Photo credit: Free Photos