By Jordan Kobritz
Fortunately, a death at the ballpark from a foul ball is an extremely rare occurrence. Only three times in over a century and a half of professional baseball have spectators been killed by a batted ball. One happened at Washington’s Griffith Stadium in 1943 and the second at Dodger Stadium in 1970. The third occurred last August when Linda Goldbloom died on August 29, four days after she was struck by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium.
The 79-year old Goldbloom was sitting in the Loge Level along the first-base side of home plate when a ball flew over the protective netting and struck her. She was rushed to the hospital where she later died. Yet neither the Dodgers nor MLB reported the incident, which was discovered five months later from an examination of medical records.
When contacted by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, the Dodgers issued a statement which stated in part, “We were deeply saddened by this tragic accident and the passing of Mrs. Goldbloom. The matter has been resolved between the Dodgers and the Goldbloom family. We cannot comment further on this matter.” Translation: The Dodgers and Goldbloom’s family entered into a settlement and confidentiality agreement, which prohibits them from commenting on the case.
Prior to the execution of the confidentiality agreement, the Dodgers could have reported the seriousness of Goldbloom’s injuries and her death, but chose not to. Should they have? I would argue “yes,” even though they had no legal duty to do so. Here’s why.
Presumably, the Dodgers didn’t divulge Goldbloom’s injuries and death for public relations purposes. After all, no team wants to inform its fans of the potentially serious dangers that lurk at the ballpark, at least, not prior to their arrival. Yet they all do it – in multiple forms – at the ballpark. Check the exculpatory language on your ticket back. Listen to the PA announcements before and during the game. Read the signage located around the ballpark. All are methods teams use to alert their fans to the dangers of flying bats and balls. Yet not all fans take those messages seriously, even though they should. What better way to drive home the point than to publicly acknowledge the gravity of Mrs. Goldbloom’s injuries?
The other side of the argument is Goldbloom was sitting behind the protective netting, where most fans would understandably feel safe. Despite that protection, she was injured by a ball that flew over the netting. That’s not a good look for the team. It could be argued the incident was foreseeable, evidence the Dodgers should have done more to safeguard their fans — e.g., raised the netting or installed a protective covering in that area of the ballpark to protect against foul balls that make it over the netting. MLB teams could also adopt practices found in other countries. In Japan, netting exists from foul pole to foul pole and in Korea, employees use whistles to alert fans to incoming foul balls.
Any discussion of what the Dodgers should have done needs to be coached in the context of the Baseball Rule, a legal doctrine first applied in 1913 and since adopted in most states. The Baseball Rule simply states that if fans are given the option to sit behind a protective screen, and stadium operators provide reasonable warnings to be alert for flying projectiles, fans are deemed to have “assumed the risks” inherent in attending a ball game. Courts almost unanimously dismiss lawsuits brought by injured plaintiffs.
One recent exception to the rule was a 2013 decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Idaho, where a plaintiff lost his eye from the impact of a foul ball. The court rejected the Baseball Rule, while acknowledging its decision was an outlier.
The Baseball Rule has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, due to the rise in the number of spectator injuries each year at MLB games, approximately 1,750. The increase can be attributed to a number of factors, including the design of new stadiums, where fans sit 20% closer to the action; the increased speed of balls off the bat, resulting in less reaction time for fans; expanded ballpark entertainment, leading to fan inattention; and the greater frequency of shattered bats, due to player preference for maple over ash and thinner bat handles.
MLB has made efforts to quell the criticism by adopting additional netting requirements in 2015 — to the home plate side of each dugout – and again last year — to the outfield side of the dugouts. Those changes failed to protect Mrs. Goldbloom, as the ball that struck her flew over the netting she was sitting behind. Should MLB also impose height standards for protective netting? The league maintains there are challenges to adopting a fixed standard, given the vagaries in ballpark construction.
One thing is certain: The course of action chosen by the Dodgers, the ostrich approach — bury your head in the sand and ignore the incident in hopes it never sees the light of day — was doomed to failure. It would have been better to act proactively and exhibit concern rather than appear to be secretive and insensitive later.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at: email@example.com.