A California state appeals court has reversed a trial court, finding that the assumption of risk doctrine does apply in a case where a baseball coach batted a ball during a drill that hit one of his players in the face.
Significant in the court’s ruling was its determination that the coach was a “co-participant,” leading to a limited duty of care and thus triggering the applicability of the doctrine.
The incident in question occurred on July 21, 2000. Coach Joe Fonteno, the defendant, was running an infield-outfield drill whereby a batter hits a ball to the outfield, which is then relayed into the infield. Fonteno, who was standing between the pitcher’s mound and second base, had two balls in play at one time. The plaintiff, second baseman Scott Vogel, was hit in the face by a ball struck by Fonteno, causing severe injuries.
Vogel sued Fonteno and the American Amateur Baseball Congress for negligence, gross negligence and recklessness, specifically alleging that the defendants increased the risks to Vogel of participating in baseball over and above those inherent in the sport.
After a court trial, the judge found the defendants liable. It specifically reasoned that “imposing a duty on a baseball coach to wait until players are finished playing one ball and are ready to receive, avoid, deflect, or otherwise protect themselves against a second batted ball will not chill active participation in the game or otherwise fundamentally change the sport.”
The defendants appealed.
The court began its analysis by reviewing the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, which can bar a personal injury action when a plaintiff voluntarily participates in a sport involving inherent risks and suffers injury due to such risks. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 315-318 (Knight).)
It further noted that “’The nature of a sport is highly relevant in defining the duty of care owed by the particular defendant’ because each sport has its own inherent risks (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 315-316.).” Baseball is one of those sports where injuries are typically part of the game, bolstering a defendant’s ability to invoke the assumption of risk doctrine.
The doctrine assumes even more significant when a plaintiff is trying to sue a co-participant in an inherent dangerous sport. Based on California case law, a defendant is subject “to financial liability only if the participant intentionally injures another player or engages in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.” (Id. at p. 320.)
In the instant case, the appeals court found that “Fonteno’s duty under the circumstances of this case was the same as that of a coparticipant, i.e., not to engage in conduct which was ‘so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.’ (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 320.)
“Fonteno acted more like a coparticipant than an instructor or non-playing actor. Fonteno was not standing on the sidelines. He participated in the drill by batting balls to the players for them to catch and throw. Just like the players, Fonteno was getting himself pumped up and ready for this important tournament game. … When, in this charged environment, Fonteno accidentally hit a line-drive instead of a fly ball; he made a mistake akin to that of a participant ‘in the heat of an active sporting event.” (Knight, supra,3 Cal.4th at p. 318.)
Next, the court turned to whether Fonteno’s conduct was so reckless as to be “totally outside the range of the ordinary activity” involved in baseball.
“Fonteno batted a ball which unintentionally struck and injured a player during a pre-game warm-up period,” wrote the court. “This conduct is within the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport of baseball in general and of a warm-up drill in particular.
The court added that evidence at trial supports its conclusion. “Vogel’s own expert agreed being hit by a ball, whether it is a line drive or another type of hit, is a risk of the drill. There was testimony that coaches, just like players, do not always hit the ball the way they intend to hit it. No coach has perfect bat control. Consistent with this fact, Vogel’s expert agreed that when a coach during the drill attempts to hit a fly ball to center field and instead accidentally hits a line drive, his or her conduct is ‘within the ordinary range of activity in baseball.’”
The court turned to whether imposing a duty on Fonteno could have a chilling effect on baseball in general and the infield-outfield drill in particular.
“The purpose of applying ‘the doctrine of primary assumption of risk in the sports setting is to avoid recognizing a duty of care when to do so would tend to alter the nature of an active sport or chill vigorous participation in the activity.’ (Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1011; see also Bushnell v. Japanese-American Religious & Cultural Center (1996) 43 Cal.App.4th 525, 530 (Bushnell)
“Imposing a duty on a coach under the facts of this case could cause a broader chilling effect on baseball because of the role of coaches during warm-ups and practices in the sport. Warm-ups and practices, and the coaches who lead them, are an inextricable part of the game of baseball. During warm-ups and practices, a coach often assumes the role of coparticipant by batting or throwing balls. If a coach faces liability for a mistake like the one committed here, it could chill the coach’s participation in practice drills where the coach participates by hitting or throwing the ball.
“Indeed, because coaches rely heavily on these drills to warm up players for practices and games, the chilling effect of potential liability may deter otherwise capable coaches from participating in the drills at all, and could affect the quality of player performance during the games that follow. Coach-led drills are such a part of baseball that we conclude the sport would be altered considerably should coaches avoid the drills out of fear of being sued by a player accidentally hit during the warm-up.”
Scott Vogel v. American Amateur Baseball Congress, et Al; Ct. App. Calif., 1st App. Dist., Div 3; A105405, A106473; 9/21/05