The Baseball Rule: What is it and are Changes Coming?

Warning sign on basball stadiumAll across America summertime is baseball season. While it might be fun to follow your favorite team with some friends at the local stadium, the baseball stadium is not without its own risks. Accidents can happen at baseball games. In fact, according to a study performed by Bloomberg News, approximately 1,750 spectators get hit by foul balls each year.

While there can be expected injuries, such as those resulting from broken bats or foul balls, not  many people are aware of the “baseball rule,” a longstanding rule in American courts. Even though the baseball rule has been around for some time, there is indication that the rule is going out of fashion, and that courts may begin holding stadiums responsible for certain injuries.

The Baseball Rule

The baseball rule stems from the assumption of risk defense available to defendants in personal injury tort claims. In short, a defendant may claim as a defense that the plaintiff knew that an activity or event being offered by the defendant was risky, that these risks were common knowledge, and that the defendant chose to assume the liability for these risks by entering. For example, a boxer would not be able to sue another boxer for internal injuries or brain injuries resulting from a match, since he was aware that such injuries could happen as a result of the match, and he proceeded to fight in the ring regardless of the risk.

In a similar vein, the baseball rule only requires that stadium owners owe spectators a limited duty of providing screened seats for as many fans as can reasonably be expected to desire them. While this rule is similar to the assumption of risk defense, and even though courts have allowed stadium owners to claim this defense alongside the baseball rule in the past, the two rules are very different. While the defense of assumption of risk only applies to the behavior of the plaintiff, the baseball rule only requires the stadium owners to provide sufficient netting to protect individuals from stray balls or debris. In addition, under the baseball rule, the responsibility for avoiding any harm from foul balls and shattered bats falls to each fan. Naturally, this can be problematic when foul balls or shards of baseball bats fly at high speeds towards spectators.

While the baseball rule is generally a court rule, there are several states that have adopted the baseball rule in statutory form, including Arizona, Colorado, New Jersey, and Illinois.

Potential Upcoming Changes

While the baseball rule has been a longstanding rule protecting stadium owners in the courts, there have been significant changes regarding the game of baseball over the years, including the intensity and speed of plays. Recently, there has been indication that the longstanding history of the baseball rule is beginning to crumble, as courts acknowledge the dangers to spectators that have developed as a result of the changing game. One of the most recent examples is that of the 2014 case South Shore Baseball LLC v. DeJesus, in which a judge for the Supreme Court of Indiana found that stadiums should not be entitled to the special limited duty rule merely because of baseball’s status as the national pastime.

In South Shore v. DeJesus, plaintiff Juanita DeJesus was attending opening day for the South Shore RailCats at the U.S. Steelyard Stadium in Gary, Indiana. During the game DeJesus was seated behind the protective netting behind home plate and was struck by a foul ball, sustaining severe injuries to her face including facial bone fractures and permanent blindness in her left eye.

Although there were several warnings provided to spectators regarding the dangers of foul balls, including warnings on the ticket, as well as warnings on the first base line where DeJesus was seated, the court still denied the stadium the use of the baseball rule and determined the question of negligence based on the standard principles of premises liability. While the Supreme court eventually found in favor of the Stadium’s motion for summary judgment, it openly denied the validity of the baseball rule, stating that DeJesus was aware of the risk of danger and accepted that risk.

In another case, Atlanta National League Baseball Club Inc. v. F.F., a minor child was injured by a foul ball and suffered from serious injuries as a result of the impact. While the court did not openly abolish the baseball rule in this ruling, the court did deny the defendant’s motion for Declaratory Judgment, which was based on the argument that the trial court should  have declared the baseball rule.

While these cases do not completely overthrow the validity of the baseball rule, they are an indication that times are changing, and that in time, more changes are sure to come.