On Friday June 5, 2015, Tonya Carpenter watches the Boston Red Sox from second row seats between home plate and third base at Fenway Park. Her son and a friend accompany her. In the second inning, Oakland Athletics third baseman Brett Lawrie steps up to the plate, swings, makes contact with the ball and the bat snaps just above the handle. A huge chunk of the bat flies into the seats, striking Mrs. Carpenter in the face.
Paramedics fought to stop the bleeding and rushed her to a nearby hospital.
Days later Carpenter rested in fair, stable condition. But who bears responsibility to compensate her for the injuries sustained at the ball game? Major league teams and the leagues themselves have proven time and again they will not accept either liability or responsibility, refusing even to pay medical bills.
Law Does Not Favor Sports Spectator Injuries
One sports law professor points out the law consistently favors teams and leagues. Attorney Leigh Augustine explains that courts operate under the premise that spectators assume the risk of attending sporting events and that the dangers “should be obvious”:
“when spectators attend professional sporting events, they assume the risks of the inherent dangers of the event, including pucks, balls, bats or tires and other objects inherent to the game which may come off the playing field and cause bodily injury or even death …”.
Who is Responsible When Spectators are Injured While Attending Professional Sporting Events. Augustine, Leigh. University of Denver Sports and Entertainment Law Journal, (2008).
Spectator Injuries: Previous Case Shot Down by Courts
Red Sox owners refused to accept responsibility for a prior ballpark tragedy. In 1998 a foul ball travelling an estimated 90 miles per hour struck Jane Costa in the head while she attended a game at Fenway. Seated 141 feet away home plate both of her eye sockets shattered, her cheek bones were fractured and her jaw was broken in three places.
The Red Sox refused even to pay medical bills. Six years later the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled in favor of team owners, holding them not liable for the injury. The court’s reasoning was that the potential for injury at a ball park “would be obvious to a person of ordinary perception”. So, management owed no duty to warn of the potential danger of being a sports spectator. This despite one fact in the case, that it took 1.07 seconds for the ball to fly from home plate to Mrs. Costa’s face.
Spectator Injuries & The Law
Spectator injuries occur millions of times each year at sporting events. Only a few baseball and hockey fans actually die. Baseball fields like Fenway Park are only required to provide protective netting or screens behind the home plate because that is the area at greatest risk. Whenever a spectator purchases a ticket to a sporting event, there is a disclaimer on the back of each ticket. The disclaimer gives warning to the spectator, which releases the property owners from any liability if the spectator sustained any injuries during their visit. Fenway owners also posted signs along the areas outside of the netting, warning spectators to be alert at all times.
The Costa case was decided only on one issue: do ball park owners owe a duty to their patrons, and the answer was no. But there may be other issues raised in future cases. What about the “disclaimer” on the back of the ticket? The court specifically did not review the validity of such tiny printed waivers written by self-serving team owners and never with any negotiation. In the case of the shattered broken bat what about the bat manufacturer? Was the baseball bat properly designed, manufactured and inspected before going out of the factory?
The vast majority of cases in this area favor team owners. But even casual observers know that the law evolves. Major changes in the law make headlines. Maybe it’s time for the law in this area to be called “foul”.
Photo credit: by Keith Allison on flickr: Creative Commons License
Foul Ball Case: Jane Costa v. The Boston Red Sox Baseball Club, 61 Mass. App. Ct. 299 (2004).