During Sunday’s game between the Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field, a female fan sitting just beyond the first-base-side camera well was struck by a line drive foul ball hit by Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber. Cubs manager Joe Maddon, responding to a question about additional protective screening, remarked that fans need to “pay attention” every time the ball is pitched.
The advice is solid, but it does not go far enough.
Last Friday in Detroit, a fan sitting behind the Tigers’ dugout was struck by a foul ball hit by Anthony Gose. Gose’s reaction to hearing the ball hit the fan was, “Oh, God.” He noted that “she was talking at first, and then she went out. … The knot on that lady’s head was bigger than a baseball. … If that hit her flush on the face, she might have died.” Gose continued, “Pitchers can’t react fast enough on the mound. How’s a fan going to react? … They can’t. They physically can’t.”
Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander and third baseman Nick Catellanos both called for baseball to improve stadium safety.
Gose has a point that Maddon did not address. Last week, Yankees pitcher Bryan Mitchell was struck in the face by a line drive hit directly back to him on the mound. Mitchell was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list and suffered a small nasal fracture. If a major league pitcher cannot protect himself, why should we expect fans to do so?
These three incidents are similar to ones earlier this season in Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Oakland Athletics fan Gail Payne filed a class-action complaint in July in a California federal court against the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and Rob Manfred, commissioner of Major League Baseball. One of her requests was to force MLB to provide netting from foul pole to foul pole. Her complaint and exhibits provide a detailed discussion of years of fan injuries during MLB games.
After Tonya Carpenter was injured in Boston, Manfred said that MLB would look into safety issues. These stories and any viewing of videos posted on the Internet should convince him and owners that many of these serious injuries are avoidable. His lead could also prompt minor league owners to take similar steps to improve safety.
Frankly, the solutions are apparent and the need for further study has passed. Baseball should voluntarily step forward and remedy the situation. Areas right behind the dugouts plus the first few rows of seating farther down each foul line are particularly vulnerable to line drives. Netting or other protective material should be added. Even attentive fans are at risk.
For the majority of the past century, the law was settled. The “Baseball Rule” mandated that owners of baseball stadiums need only screen the area near home plate and provide seating there for all who requested it. Furthermore, the legal doctrine that fans attending games assumed the risk protected owners from plaintiffs seeking to recover damages for injuries from foul balls, thrown balls, or bats, or parts of bats that entered the seating areas. Plus, tickets displayed a warning. Nearly every jurisdiction considered these concepts a complete bar to recovery by injured fans.
In the past decade, however, courts have looked more carefully at these doctrines. Idaho, Indiana and New Mexico both rejected the blanket bar. In 1992, after Illinois courts allowed lawsuits to proceed, the Legislature passed the Sports Facility Liability Act to protect stadium owners. Arizona, Colorado and New Jersey passed similar legislation. The Illinois statute applies to Sunday’s incident in Chicago.
Courts grappling with comparative negligence and comparative fault began to reconsider the absolute bar at the foundation of the assumption of risk doctrine. Electronic tickets often fail to carry the warning. Plus, the next time you go to a major league stadium, see how employees respond to your request to be seated in the screened area because you are concerned over safety. Those seats are often among the most expensive and controlled by season-ticket holders.
The newest technology provides netting material that does not distract from viewing. Although a few fans will find it more difficult to obtain autographs or catch balls tossed their way by players between half-innings, the prevention of injuries would better balance the relationship between owners and patrons of the game.
Ed Edmonds, a Notre Dame Law School professor, specializes in antitrust and labor issues involving baseball. He is co-authoring a book on Major League Baseball and the law, including fan safety and injuries at ballparks. He wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.