Hot Dog Stands and Flying Shaq’s: A look at the line in the sand when it comes to owner liability at sporting events

Sep 28, 2007

By Jeff Tracy
“Where should the line be drawn between an individual’s own responsibility to take care of herself, and society’s responsibility to ensure that others shield her?” Good question isn’t it. The quote comes from the Honorable D.J. Sweet, a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, in a ruling handed down by the Court in Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp. In Pelman, two girls claimed that McDonald’s had engaged in deception in making and selling their products, and this deception caused the two girls to consume the products and become obese.
This case brings back the haunting tale of Ms. Liebeck getting millions and millions of dollars from McDonald’s after she spilled hot coffee in her lap. Essentially, people should be able to protect themselves and have enough common sense to be careful around hot coffee. However, the jury didn’t buy the common sense argument and sent the entire industry a message — a $2.7 million dollar punitive damage message. Public opinion, for the most part, has resided squarely on the McDonald’s side, showing that the large majority of citizens were outraged by the seemingly excessive verdict.
Conversely that same love for personal responsibility doesn’t translate over to the sports world where baseball team owners are routinely sued by fans that get hit by a foul ball. Many people believe that when you attend a sporting event, you assume the risk of being injured and generally have no legal recourse if you are injured. That is, when you go to a baseball game and sit where there is no netting, you “know or should know of the potential ill health effects” that may come about. While this conclusion is largely correct, the rationale behind it is wrong.
The majority of state courts have held that, like any other landowner, a ballpark owner is under a duty of care to take reasonable precautions to prevent injury to those who attend the game. That duty, however, does not require an absolute protection (i.e. complete screening) as a field owner has a “legitimate interest” in accommodating a spectator who prefers to view the game unobstructed. Further, an owner is required to screen the “most dangerous section of the field” and to those “spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion.” Put more simply: “the standard of reasonable care does not impose a duty to protect from risks associated with baseball.” This much is well established.
Or so it appeared. In Jones v. Three Rivers Management, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw a curve ball at the “no duty” power hitter that so many states had previously adopted and would continue to adopt. In Jones, the plaintiff was struck while standing in an interior concourse of the right field bleachers by an incoming ball. The jury returned a verdict for the Plaintiff but the Appellate court reversed. The Supreme Court reinstated the judgment holding that the well established “no duty” rule does not apply to situations where the spectator is struck in an unscreened part of the stands.
At first glance, these cases seemed like a contradiction. One court found no liability when someone was struck while in the stands and another found liability when they were in the concourse. This seemed like a minor technicality and yet another example of how the courts can be convoluted. Upon further reflection, however, the conclusion reached by each court fits together quite nicely. And it brings us back to our original question: “where should the line be drawn between an individual’s own responsibility to take care of herself, and societies responsibility to ensure that others shield her?” The line, apparently, is at the hot-dog stand.
And as odd as it might sound, that is probably where it belongs. While we are in the stands, we have the ability to see what’s going on and protect ourselves if something comes our way. In fact, we want something to come our way. As spectators of any sporting events, part of the joy of the game is the small glimpses of interaction that we get with our heroes. It’s the “I almost caught a foul ball,” “Tiger was right next to me” and “Shaq dove right on top of me” type moments that keep us coming back.
Why then do people blame owners when that very thing that brings them so much joy suddenly causes them harm? While it is a tragedy when someone is hit by a ball and serious harm is inflicted, somewhere along the line, people must recognize their own responsibility. This is why the rulings by the courts make so much sense.
People don’t expect to catch a foul ball, stand next to Tiger or have Shaq jump on them while they are at the nacho hut, condiment table or merchandise tent. At that point, they are concerned about extra cheese and napkins. When people are in these places, they don’t have an ability to watch out for themselves as they do when actually seated. At that point, it is society’s responsibility to ensure that someone else shields them from harm.
Jeff Tracy is an associate attorney at Eldridge Cooper Steichen & Leach, PLLC in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a focus on products liability defense and insurance defense. While attending the University of Tulsa College Law, Jeff was an avid student of sports law. He can be reached at (918)388-5579


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