Court Affirms Judgment for Baseball Club in Foul Ball Case

Mar 27, 2004

A Minnesota appeals court has affirmed a trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment to a baseball team, which had been sued by a spectator who was hit and injured by a foul ball.
In affirming the lower court’s ruling, the appeals court noted that “Minnesota, like other states, has determined that certain sporting events, including baseball games, present inherent risks that are well known to the public, and that anyone who attends those events assumes the risk of injury.”
The appeals court found little merit in the plaintiff’s argument that because he was in a concession area and not in his seat, the team owed a special duty to him and others.
The incident occurred at a St. Paul Saints baseball game at the Midway Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota. The plaintiff, Ronald Alwin, had a general admission ticket and was seated in the open-seating, bleacher section of the stands on the third-base side of the field. During the seventh, Alwin left his seat and went to the men’s restroom located in the back of the grandstand on the third-base side of the field. To get there, Alwin walked down the steps of the bleacher section, walked across an area on the ground level near the concession stand, and up the stairway leading to the back of the grandstand and to the restroom. As he walked back to his seat, Alwin was hit in the mouth by a foul ball. The impact of the ball knocked one of Alwin’s teeth out, causing him to need extensive restorative dental procedures.
The plaintiff sued, alleging that the defendant, St. Paul Saints Baseball Club, Inc. (the Club), was negligent. The trial court granted summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.
In reviewing the ruling, the court noted that the Club provides various safety precautions for its spectators, such as “seats behind home plate that are shielded by a protective net.” Further, “each admission ticket warns patrons that they assume the risks and dangers incidental to baseball, including being hit by a bat or batted ball.” There are also “numerous, large warning signs posted throughout the stadium alerting spectators that they could be injured during the baseball game and pre-game warmup by a thrown or batted ball leaving the field of play. Finally, a loudspeaker announcement is made before the game begins, warning spectators to be alert for thrown or batted balls leaving the field of play.”
The court next turned to the duty, if any, that the ballpark owes its spectators. That “limited duty,” noted the court “is to offer the spectators a choice between screened-in seats and seats without protective netting. Swagger v. City of Crystal, 379 N.W.2d 183, 185-86 (Minn. App. 1985), review denied (Minn. Feb. 19, 1986).” The Club met the above threshold.
But the plaintiff also sought to expand the duty “to include an additional duty to protect spectators in other areas of the ballpark where they may not actually be watching the ballgame.” Specifically, he argued that, “because he was not in the bleachers but was in the restroom-concession stand area, because the Club reasonably expected people to be in the restroom-concession stand area, and because he could not see the batter or game from that area, he was not a spectator who assumed the risks inherent to the game.” If true, the defendant should be liable, he argued.
Alwin concludes that in his case the Club failed to use reasonable care in protecting him from foul balls by failing to erect protective netting in the restroom-concession stand area.
The appeals court described its “principal inquiry” as determining “whether Alwin assumed a risk inherent to the game of baseball even though he was not seated in the bleachers when he was struck by a fly foul ball.”
The court identified substantial case law, which supports the belief that spectators assume the risk when they attend, not only baseball games, but numerous other sporting events, such as golf tournaments and hockey games.
Court Finds Pa. Case Inapplicable
The plaintiff had structured much of his argument around a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case in which a ballpark was found to have a duty to a ballpark patron who was hit in the eye by a batted ball during batting practice, while the patron was standing in an interior walkway in the stadium’s outer concourse. Jones v. Three Rivers Mgmt. Corp., 483 Pa. 75, 394 A.2d 546, 551-52 (Pa. 1978).
In that case, however, the court determined that there was a specific architectural feature of the stadium that forced fans into unprotected areas as they arrived at the game. That court further reaffirmed “the well-settled principle that a ballpark patron knowingly accepts the reasonable risks inherent in and incident to the game. Id. at 549, n.5.”
The present court was unwilling to recognize any similarities between its case and Jones.
To do so, “would start us down the slippery slope of drawing a line between risk and protected areas of the stadium for the typical spectator,” it wrote.
Rather, it concluded that Alwin was a “spectator” whether he was in his seat or walking back from the restroom.
“Any other characterization of Alwin’s status would create difficulty in applying this well-established, general rule. For example, if a walking vendor obstructs a spectator’s view in the stands and a ball strikes the spectator, would that spectator have a cause of action? By following the general rule that a spectator assumes the risk inherent to the baseball game, we are not, however, extending the rule to a situation in which a ballpark creates a separate amusement or activity within the ballpark [*10] unrelated to the traditional ballgame. Cf. Aldes v. Saint Paul Ball Club, Inc., 251 Minn. 440, 442-43, 88 N.W.2d 94, 96-97 (1958) (declining to apply primary-assumption-of-the-risk doctrine where 12-year-old child is invited to sit in an unprotected box seat rather than in the protected seat for which he had ticket because he was exposed to a greater risk than he had accepted when he purchase his ticket).”
“We conclude, however, that it is not appropriate here to change a well-established rule applying the primary-assumption-of-the-risk doctrine where a spectator at a baseball game is injured by a risk inherent to the game, such as being struck by a foul ball. Such modification of the law is for the legislature.” Alwin vs. St. Paul Saints Baseball Club, Inc., et al., A03-686, Mn. S.Ct., 12/16/03


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