An Umpire’s Perspective: Should I Be Concerned about Liability?

Mar 13, 2009

Every year players are hurt on the ball field. Sometimes the injury is unavoidable. In 1976 Steve Yeager of the Los Angeles Dodgers was standing on deck when a shattered bat hit him in the neck and pierced his esophagus. Sometimes the player assumes the risk of injury. A player crashing into an outfield wall chasing a fly ball comes to mind. Sometimes the injury is avoidable and results from another’s negligence.
It is this third category that we worry about as umpires. The court system has seen its share of lawsuits against umpires. In his special report for the National Association of Sports Officials, entitled Limited Liability for Sports Officials, Steven Ellinger states:
“Negligence claims can arise based on an official’s failure to: inspect the playing field; control the game; keep the playing area free of equipment and spectators; stop a game because of inclement weather conditions; inspect equipment; and protect and warn participants.”
Courts have been reluctant to assign any legal liability to umpires for player injuries unless the umpire acted in a reckless or intentional manner. In most cases the dangers are open and obvious and the athlete is said to “assume the risk” of participating under those conditions (such as a muddy field, or in some cases when lightning is present). Some states have enacted legislation to provide protection to sports officials from acts of negligence.
While umpires have generally escaped liability for their acts of simple negligence, the costs involved in a lawsuit are considerable. Even if called as a witness, your time and involvement in court and during depositions, etc. can be extensive. So who pays for the defense of the lawsuit when little Johnny is injured? As an independent contractor it is your responsibility to pay for your defense. The “American Rule” is that each party pays its own legal fees. That means you will either pay for a lawyer out of your own pocket or you had better have insurance. Homeowner’s insurance will likely not cover this type of action. Often association insurance will not pay anything, or a reduced rate, for attorney fees.
The best way to protect yourself from liability is to maintain liability insurance and take your responsibility to protect the players seriously. When in doubt, err on the side of safety. The old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Steven Ellinger suggests:
“Sports officials can help to protect themselves from possible litigation by following the checklist below:
1. Inspecting the playing surface and adjacent areas for hazards prior to the game.
2. Determining if weather conditions are appropriate for beginning or continuing the game.
3. Inspecting game equipment prior to and during the game.
4. Inspecting players’ equipment for safety and compliance with game rules prior to the game.
5. Controlling the game and properly enforcing playing rules.”
As an umpire I suggest that during every pre-game meeting you tell the coaches that “we are going to have good sportsmanship and a safe game.” With that, ask whether the teams are properly equipped. Even though the Fed rules require it, many umpires fail to ask this simple question. Especially for softball, tell the coaches to have their players remove all jewelry. It is easy to imagine a lawsuit from an injury resulting from illegal equipment. Go over the ground rules and pay special attention to any area that may be a safety issue. Inform coaches that they are to have “buckets and bodies” in the dugout. Sure they don’t like it, but if the coach or player is seriously injured from a foul ball, the plaintiff’s lawyer will want to know why you allowed such a dangerous condition to exist on your field.
By emphasizing safety you set the tone for later penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct infractions and encourage the cooperation from the participants. Many game management issues can be handled under the pretense of safety, for instance: policing equipment, keeping gates closed, or delaying or suspending games for weather. Emphasizing safety may be the difference between spending time on the field or in the courtroom.
Pete is the author of


Articles in Current Issue