By Carla Varriale, Esq.*
In a case of first impression regarding the duty of care owed by the owners and operators of baseball stadiums to stadium patrons, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has crafted a hybrid duty of care straddling the “limited duty” and “business invitee” standards of care embraced by other states. This shifting standard of care, which depends on where a patron is located within the stadium at the time he or she is injured, is troubling for the owners and operators of stadiums and similar venues and encouraging to prospective litigants and their lawyers.
In Maisonave v. The Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, Inc., a foul ball struck plaintiff Louis Maisonave as he purchased a beverage from a mobile vending cart located on the concourse of Riverfront Stadium, the home of the minor league baseball team The Newark Bears (the “Bears”). Although vending carts were provided in the protected area, Maisonave patronized a cart that was not protected. Before the accident, he observed the baseball game near the first base side of the playing field. At the time of the accident, he faced the playing field but he did not observe the foul ball before it hit him.
Maisonave sued the Bears and Gourmet Dining Services, Inc., the provider of food and beverage services at the stadium. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and held that they did not breach their duty of care. The trial court relied upon Schneider v. American Hockey & Ice Skating Center, Inc., 342 N.J.Super. 527, 533-34 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 387 (2001). Schneider established a two-pronged duty of care for stadium owners and operators, requiring that: 1) the operator must provide protected seating “sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion,” and 2) the operator must provide protection for spectators in “the most dangerous section” of the stands. Schneider stated that this was satisfied by providing protected seating behind home plate at baseball games and behind the goals at hockey games. The trial court determined that by providing at least two vending carts near home plate behind the protected area, the defendants met their duty of care. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case, holding that the description of the most dangerous locations of the stadium set forth in the second prong of Schneider was intended to be neither exhaustive nor immutable. Rather, the measure of the duty owed was “due care under all of the circumstances.”
The Supreme Court held that owners and operators of baseball stadiums cannot be held liable for injuries to spectators located in the stands because the potential danger of errant baseballs is an inherent, expected and a desired part of the spectator’s experience. The Court reasoned that, owners and operators would face undue hardship if forced to guarantee protection for all spectators in the stands from every stray baseball. Nevertheless, the Court held that the limited duty of care, a specialized negligence standard that has protected stadium owners and operators since the early days of modern baseball, should be applied to patrons located in the stands, the stairs used to access the stands, and the areas immediately adjacent to the stands designated as “standing room only” and dedicated solely to viewing the game. The business invitee rule, the standard of care generally applied to business enterprises, must be applied to patrons located in any other areas of a stadium, including “multipurpose” areas such as concourses and playgrounds. Under the business invitee rule, an owner or operator owes a duty of reasonable care to guard against any dangerous conditions on the premises that he or she either knows about or should have discovered in the exercise of reasonable care.
Writing for a majority of the Court, Justice Zazzali relied, in part, on a law review article that opined baseballs hit into the unscreened portions of a stadium (such as down the foul lines) travel at a higher velocity than baseballs that are hit behind home plate. The Court characterized the sport of baseball as “an ever-expanding business,” and noted the “sensory overload of distractions” at a baseball game when it held that the limited duty of care does not accommodate all of the activities that are a part of the modern baseball game. According to the Court, nothing in the game of baseball distinguishes it from other businesses in a way that justifies preferential treatment for stadium owners and operators for injuries that occur outside of the stands. However, the Court acknowledged that baseball is a unique sport because spectators actively engage in the game by trying to catch foul balls. Justice Zazzali reasoned that owners and operators must reassess whether there is a sufficient amount of seating available “in the most dangerous locations for those that might reasonably expect to obtain such seats.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Wallace stated that the business invitee rule should be applied throughout the entire stadium. Justice Rivera-Soto and Justice LaVecchia concurred in part and dissented in part and reasoned that the same duty of care (limited duty) should apply to the same peril (objects leaving the playing field), without regard to where the patron was located at the time of the accident.
In Maisonave, the Supreme Court created a unique standard of care that depends on whether a patron is located in the stands or another area of a stadium. Owners and operators must identify those areas which are most dangerous and take preventive steps to ensure safety to a reasonable extent, because owners and operators are in the best position to determine which areas of the stadium are the most dangerous. It is not clear what “reasonable” steps must be undertaken in order to ensure a patron’s safety in the non-stands, multipurpose areas of a baseball stadium or who should bear the cost of the same. The owners and operators should investigate risk-shifting strategies (such as insurance and indemnification agreements). One thing is clear as a result of Maisonave: baseball stadiums and similar venues will be a source of increased litigation involving spectators, owners, operators, concessionaires, architects and contractors.
* Carla Varriale, Esq. is a partner at Havkins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale, LLP. She is a litigator who specializes in the defense of owners and operators of sporting and recreational facilities, including major and minor league baseball teams.
She can be reached at: email@example.com