By Joshua Winneker
The fun gives way to potential liability each time a professional team’s mascot attempts to entertain the fans with comedic and potentially dangerous antics. More and more proof of this continues to surface in professional sports. Most recently, it was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ “Crunch the Wolf” mascot that caused injury to a fan, but this was not an ordinary fan – – Crunch actually hurt Karl-Anthony Towns’ (the Timberwolves’ center) father.
During a game against the Indiana Pacers, Crunch was performing a stunt he had done many times before where he climbs aboard a sled and careens down the arena steps. This time, though, he crashed into Towns’ father, injuring Towns’ right knee. The assumption is that Towns’ connection with the team will prevent him from pursuing a negligence lawsuit against the mascot, and his employer, the Timberwolves. In that respect, the Timberwolves were lucky, but if this incident occurred with a fan with no relation to the team, a potentially successful lawsuit would be on the horizon.
It certainly is not unusual for an injured fan to sue because of a mascot’s negligence, but the occurrences are happening more frequently and the law has not been favorable for the teams.
Crunch’s antics can be likened to that of “Sluggerrr,” the Kansas City Royals’ mascot whose behind-the-back hotdog toss into the eye of a fan caused serious injury and a negligence lawsuit. Eventually, the case reached the Missouri Supreme Court who rejected, as a matter of law, the team’s “assumption of the risk” defense. Teams typically can defend against spectator-injury lawsuits by maintaining that the fans knew of the inherent risks of the sport prior to attending the game so the fan cannot then claim liability on the team’s part if they are later injured during the game.
For the injured Royals fan, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that getting hit with a wrapped hot dog thrown by a team mascot is not an inherent risk in a baseball game. This decision was in-line with a prior Appellate Court decision in California where the court ruled that an injured fan did not assume the risk of a mascot-related injury because the mascot’s antics were not considered an essential or integral part of playing a baseball game. The same would likely be true for Crunch’s antics at a basketball game.
Sluggerrr’s situation put professional teams on notice of this potential for liability and this trend may continue in Florida as well. The Miami Marlins were recently sued by a fan who injured her neck when the “shark mascot” pretended to bite her but instead twisted her neck. That case is currently scheduled for trial in June 2017.
With prior settlements from injured fans against the Philadelphia Phillies and their mascot, the “Philly Phanatic,” and the Miami Heat and their mascot, “Burnie,” it’s a wonder why professional teams even continue to employ mascots at all. Teams like the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls, whose mascots perform similar stunts as Crunch, must ask the question, “Does the benefit of having a mascot really outweigh the risk of a lawsuit?” Why not ask the mascot-less New York Yankees this question— they seem to be existing just fine without one.
Joshua D. Winneker, J.D., Assistant Professor of Business at Misericordia University, and David Gargone, Ed.D., Associate Professor of Business at Misericordia University.