A New Jersey state appeals court has reversed a trial court’s ruling that granted summary judgment to a group of defendants in a case that calls into question whether the defendants took appropriate steps to protect spectators during the warm-up period of a hockey game.
The incident in question occurred on January 4, 2003, when plaintiffs Denise and Peter Sciarrotta attended an East Coast Hockey League game between the Trenton Titans and Johnstown Chiefs in the Sovereign Bank Arena.
The plaintiffs were sitting in the sixth row from the ice, above the Plexiglas protective barriers, but near the center of the arena. They were watching the two teams warm up, a time when the players on each team are passing dozens of pucks back and forth to each other and taking shots at the goals.
The injury occurred when Ms. Sciarrotta was hit in the head by a puck that entered the stands. A witness to the incident said that the offending puck hit the side of the goal post and ricocheted into the stands striking the plaintiff.
The plaintiffs sued, alleging that the defendants were actionably negligent for “failing to keep the premises in a safe condition, … causing a dangerous condition to exist, …
failing to provide proper safeguards and/or warnings on their property, … (and in) failing to provide proper safe . . . access” for patrons.
After the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs appealed. The appeals court noted that the trial court correctly identified the legal standard that applies to the instant case, which is imbedded in Maisonave v. Newark Bears Prof. Baseball Club, 185 N.J. 705 (2005). In respect of spectator safety at sports events, the Supreme Court in that case adopted “the limited duty rule as one that fairly balances the practical and economic interests of owners and operators with the safety and entertainment interests of the fans, . . . to the extent that it holds that owners and operators must offer sufficient protected seating to those who would seek it on an ordinary basis and to provide screening in the most dangerous area of the stands.
“The Court went on to characterize the scope of the limited duty rule’s application in this State:
‘We expect owners and operators, who are in the best position to determine which areas of the stadium are indeed the most dangerous to identify those areas and take preventative steps to ensure fan safety to a reasonable extent.”
The appeals court continued that “although the Court in Maisonave dealt with the liability issues in the context of a baseball stadium, it cited, with approval, our decision in Schneider v. American Hockey and Ice Skating Ctr., Inc., 342 N.J. Super. 527 (App Div. 2001), where we applied the limited duty rule in the context of a hockey arena, holding:
“‘a hockey rink operator has a limited duty to provide a protected area for spectators who choose not to be exposed to the risk posed by flying pucks and to screen any spectator area that is subject to a high risk of injury from flying pucks.[Id. at 530.]’”
The appeals court agreed with the trial court that the defendants have satisfied the first component of the limited duty rule “by providing protective seating for spectators who might reasonably have requested it.”
However, the appeals court sided with the plaintiffs “that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether or not the section she was seated in contained sufficient protection for watching the warm-ups.”
The appeals court continued that “the critical issues are whether the netting and the customary Plexiglas were, together, sufficient protections to satisfy the limited duty owed by defendants to protect patrons from the ordinary risks of the hockey game experience; or whether, in the circumstances, a higher duty was owed.
“Among the questions to be determined in this case are whether the risks encountered during warm-ups before a game are in the same category as those informing the limited duty described in Maisonave, and whether defendants acted appropriately in the circumstances to discharge the limited duty they owe in respect of the ordinary dangers of the sports event; or whether defendants are bound by the higher duty, based on ‘traditional rules of negligence, specifically the business invitee rule,’ Maisonave, supra, 185 N.J. at 87, that governs owner and operator liability for injuries that
occur in contexts outside those normally to be anticipated by spectators in the course of sports events.
“To the extent warm ups are an integral part of the hockey game experience, the limited duty rule might be seen to apply. Yet, our inquiry does not end there. Plaintiffs have provided no basis for viewing the precautions actually taken by defendants to have been inadequate to protect spectators from the risks of injury normally to be anticipated during the course of a hockey game. But, the injury
here did not occur during a game; rather, it occurred during warm-ups. The risks are not the same in those two phases of the hockey game experience. As far as we know from the record before us and common knowledge, during a hockey game there is but one puck in play with the players from both teams endeavoring to gain control of that single puck and maneuver it into the opponent’s goal. The stream of player action is, generally, in the direction of the goals. The placement of sufficient netting behind the goals and in the corners adjoining them is, as a matter of law, adequate to protect spectators from the occasional errant puck during the game that is so misdirected as to leave the ice and be driven toward the stands. However, the same devices may not provide adequate protection during warm-ups, when many pucks are in motion in varying directions.
“Moreover, during the game, with only one puck in play, the spectators are in a position to protect themselves to the same extent as a spectator at a baseball game is in respect of the single ball in play. ‘While watching the game, either seated or
standing in an unprotected viewing area, spectators reasonably may be expected to pay attention and to look out for their own safety.’ Maisonave v. Newark Bears, 371 N.J. Super. 129, 134 (App. Div. 2004)(quoted with approval on appeal, 185 N.J. at 81).
“Nevertheless, the responsibilities the law places on both owners and spectators may be different in materially different circumstances. We agree with the motion judge that the liability rules of Maisonave and Schneider were not intended to be exhaustive and that the special circumstances of a given case might be seen to portend a result that is different from the general run of cases.”
The court continue that “it seems obvious that even the most experienced and event-devoted spectators would have difficulty keeping track of all those pucks. We are mindful that a balancing of interests is at the heart of the limited duty concept, a balancing that seeks to ‘harmonize the interests of fans and owners,’ Maisonave, supra, 185 N.J. at 83.”
“… A spectator during the game itself is able to protect herself by paying attention to the location and path of the puck. She allows herself to become distracted at the relatively minor risk of being injured by the single puck in motion. Even so, the standard the law imposes requires the owner to take special steps for protecting spectators in the areas of the arena that present the highest level of spectator vulnerability during games, the end zones and corners. A spectator during warm-ups is not so readily able to provide for her own safety, however, and a greater portion of the stands than just the ends zones and the corners become the areas of vulnerability.
“’Heightened vulnerability’ is the expressed basis in Maisonave for the difference in treatment afforded spectators in the stands of a baseball stadium as distinguished from patrons who leave the stands for other areas of the stadium. See id. at 85. That difference in treatment reflects the possibility of a changing status relationship between the owner and the patron based upon the nature of the activity and the reasonable
expectations of the spectator.
“Here, there are questions of fact to be determined. We pose the most obvious ones. Did defendants take appropriate steps to protect spectators from, or warn them about, the special dangers inherent in warm-up activities? Did the owners and operators of the teams reasonably conform to League requirements in the protective steps they took? To what extent are the injuries incurred attributable to the injured plaintiff’s own inattention or disregard for her own safety?
“We conclude, on this basis, that defendants’ motion for summary judgment should not have been granted, and that plaintiffs are entitled to the opportunity to develop their proofs, expert and otherwise, within the bounds of Maisonave, that more adequately protective steps were available and should have been taken to minimize the risk of harm from the specific activity at issue.”
Denise M. Sciarrotta et al. v. Global Spectrum et al.; Super. Ct. N.J.; Docket No. A-5103-05t1; 4/26/07
Attorneys of Record: (for appellants) Lara Persichetti Lovett and J. Robert Bratman of Stark & Stark. (for respondents) Scott D. Samansky and Philip J. Odett of Fishman & Callahan.