In Reversal, Appeals Court Declines To Apply Baseball Rule

Sep 25, 2009

A New Mexico state appeals court has hurled a brushed-back pitch of its own in a case involving an injury suffered by a spectator during a baseball game.
In a majority decision, the panel of judges declined to apply the so-called “baseball rule,” which insulates baseball teams that provide some protections for spectators, such as netting behind home plate. It reasoned specifically that “there is no public policy reason to justify bestowing immunity on the business of baseball.”
The victim in the case was 4-year-old Emilio Crespin, who was attending an Albuquerque Isotopes minor league baseball game with his parents on July 21, 2003. The family was sitting at a picnic table in the left field stands, when Dave Matranga of the New Orleans Zephyrs hit a batting practice home run that hit the boy, fracturing his skull.
The parents sued the Albuquerque Baseball Club, LLC, d/b/a Albuquerque Isotopes (Isotopes), the City of Albuquerque (the City), Houston McLane Co. d/b/a Houston Astros (Astros), and Matranga. The Astros were later dismissed from the case
In their complaint, the Crespins alleged that the City and the Isotopes owed the plaintiffs “the duty to use ordinary care to keep the premises safe for use by visitors” and breached that duty and that Matranga, an employee of the Astros, “ignored his duty to exercise ordinary care as he directed the ball into the occupied picnic area.” The plaintiffs further alleged that Matranga’s conduct “was wanton and showed an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of” the plaintiffs and other visitors at the stadium.
The plaintiffs’ theories of negligence against the City and the Isotopes included failure to adequately protect spectators from fly balls, failure to warn, and failure to keep the premises safe for visitors. Against the Astros, The plaintiffs alleged negligent training and supervision of Matranga and vicarious liability for Matranga’s conduct.
The defendants moved for summary judgment, a motion that was granted by the trial court based on the rationale that the plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury and that the defendants had done enough to protect them.
The plaintiffs appealed.
Leading off, the court noted that the case “presents the first opportunity for a New Mexico appellate court to consider whether to carve out an exception to the usual tort doctrines for the sport of baseball.”
It further noted that its Supreme Court “considered the risks inherent in a spectator sport in McFatridge v. Harlem Globe Trotters, 69 N.M. 271, 365 P.2d 918 (1961), in which
the plaintiff had been hit by a basketball thrown by a member of the Harlem Globe
Trotters at a game. Id. at 272-73, 365 P.2d at 919.
After that court ruled for the plaintiff, the defendant argued on appeal that the district court should have instructed the jury on assumption of the risk and relied on an ALR annotation regarding that doctrine in the context of baseball. Id. at 274, 365 P.2d at 920. The Court observed in dictum: “That there is danger from being injured by being struck by balls hit foul or otherwise striking spectators in certain locations at baseball games which would be known to fans of the game is clear and from this fact arises the custom to protect the areas of greatest danger.” Id. at 277, 365 P.2d at 922. Because there was no similar degree of danger in basketball, the Court concluded that there was no need to instruct specifically on the doctrine of assumption of the risk because the jury had been instructed on contributory negligence. Id.
“The dictum in McFatridge suggests that the law should somehow acknowledge the risks inherent in baseball. This suggestion was diluted to some extent 20 years later when our Supreme Court adopted comparative negligence in Scott v. Rizzo, 96 N.M. 682, 634 P.2d 1234 (1981), superseded by statute as stated in Reichert v. Atler, 117 N.M. 628, 875 P.2d 834 (1992). In Rizzo, the Court stated that “[a]ssumption of risk as a form of negligence and other liability concepts based on or related to negligence of either plaintiff, defendant, or both, are subject to the comparative negligence rule.” Id. at 687, 634 P.2d at 1239 (internal citation omitted). From this statement we can conclude that a spectator’s knowledge of baseball’s inherent risks should not automatically preclude the spectator from recovering if he or she is injured as a result of one of those risks. Rather, the spectator’s assumption of the risks inherent in the game may inform the fact finder’s assessment of the parties’ relative fault.”
Comparative negligence principles, or taking into account the risks that spectators voluntarily accept when they attend baseball games as well as the ability of stadium owners to guard against unreasonable risks that are not essential to the game, seemed to be the lynchpin of the majority’s opinion.
“While the baseball rule may have made sense during the era of the all-or-nothing contributory negligence doctrine, it no longer does,” it wrote. “Under our present tort system, we discern no public policy reason to justify bestowing immunity on the business of baseball.”
The dissent judge countered in his opinion that the failure to adopt the “baseball rule” was a rejection of “nearly one hundred years of American jurisprudence.” He added that it isolates New Mexico from other states. “While tragic in the extreme, the injuries suffered in this case did not result from any negligence in the conduct of the game or design of the stadium.”.
The defendants were represented by Sean Garrett, who told the media that the ruling “creates uncertainty as to what these various recreational facilities need to do in order to meet their duty under the law.”
Edward Crespin et al. v. Albuquerque Baseball Club et al.; Ct. App. N.M.; NO. 27,864; 7/31/09
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