A North Carolina Appeals Court has overturned a trial court’s decision to grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss the claim of a spectator, who sued after she was hit and injured by a soccer ball during a soccer match.
In so ruling, the court found that the plaintiff had cleared her preliminary hurdle of demonstrating that she “had no knowledge or underlying information that there was a significant risk of being struck by a soccer ball when attending such events at this facility.”
The incident occurred on April 26, 2003 when Teresa Lynn Allred attended a professional women’s soccer match at State Capital Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. Prior to the start of the match, the plaintiff was in the stands located behind one of the goals when she was struck in the head by a soccer ball. The plaintiff sustained substantial head injuries.
Nearly three years later, she filed a complaint in Orange County Superior Court, seeking monetary damages for her injuries and her husband’s loss of consortium based upon the alleged negligence of defendants.
Several months later, defendants Capital Area Soccer League, Inc. and CASL Soccer Properties LLC filed answers to the complaint, raising the affirmative defenses of contributory negligence and assumption of risk, and moving to dismiss the complaint.
The lower court granted the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, spawning the appeal and the instant opinion.
The appeals court zeroed in on some of the factual events, associated with the case. “During the warm-ups ‘many balls were directed towards the nets in a relatively short period of time.’ One of these balls sailed over the soccer goal, into the stands, striking the plaintiff and causing serious injury. Plaintiff alleged that she ‘had never attended a soccer game at the subject facility prior to her injury and had no knowledge or underlying information that there was a significant risk of being struck by a soccer ball.’”
Her complaint specifically asserted that the defendants “were negligent in: (1) failing to warn patrons of the risk of being struck by a soccer ball leaving the field of play; (2) failing to provide a safe environment for patrons; and (3) failing to install protective netting behind the goals to protect spectators.”
After struggling to find a case with a similar fact pattern involving soccer, the court opined that it “is apparent from the baseball cases decided in other jurisdictions that it has been accepted as a matter of law that a patron’s being struck in the stands by an errant baseball was an inherent and obvious risk of attending the game. The only exceptions appear to be from unusual events not inherent in the game. E.g., Jones v. Three Rivers Management Corp., 483 Pa. 75, 87, 394 A.2d 546, 552 (1978).”
In soccer, the risks to the spectator are not so obvious.
The plaintiffs’ complaint specifically alleged that the plaintiff “’had no knowledge or underlying information that there was a significant risk of being struck by a soccer ball when attending such events at this facility.’ We hold that this allegation is sufficient to withstand defendants’ Rule 12(b)(6) motion on the basis of plaintiff’s actual knowledge.”
The court then reviewed the defendant’s counter to the above point, “that other allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint clearly demonstrate that the danger of a patron being struck by a soccer ball was open and obvious.”
The appeals court was unmoved, writing that “nothing in the complaint intimates that plaintiff possessed this particularized knowledge, or that a reasonable person attending a soccer match would possess such particularized knowledge. Second, on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), plaintiff’s allegations are to be liberally construed and treated as true. Wood v. Guilford County, 355 N.C. at 166, 558 S.E.2d at 494.
“Finally we note that, while plaintiffs’ allegation of no knowledge of the danger based on not having been to an event at this particular stadium is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss at this stage of the proceedings, it may not be sufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment or a motion to dismiss at trial. Whether the plaintiff had knowledge of the danger is not limited to her experience at this particular stadium, but would encompass her knowledge of soccer in general, and of the sport derived from attendance at other venues. Further, the issue of whether a condition was open and obvious is also to be analyzed by whether the conditions were ‘so obvious and apparent that they reasonably may be expected to be discovered.’”
The latter may apply, given the relative dearth of litigation that exists where spectators have sued match organizers or stadiums after being hit with a soccer ball.
Teresa Lynn Allred et al. v. Capital Area Soccer League, Inc. et al.; N.C. Ct. App.; No. 06 CVS 14670; 12/16/08
Attorneys of Record: (for defendants) R. Anthony Hartsoe and Joseph R. Schmitz of Hartsoe & Associates, PC.; and Stephen C. Keadey of Ellis & Winters LLP.; Derek M. Crump of Brown, Crump, Vanore & Tierney, L.L.P.