In a majority decision, a North Carolina state appeals court has affirmed a ruling of a trial court that a baseball field operator did do enough to protect a patron from a foul ball, which struck the patron and led to a negligence lawsuit.
In the dissenting opinion, one of the judges questioned the adequacy of the protection, and said an assessment of whether the operator did enough was better left to a jury.
In June 2012, Stephen Victor Wheeler was attending his son’s baseball game at a newly renovated field rented by Central Carolina Scholastic Sports, INC. The plaintiff was struck in the head by a foul ball while standing and talking with a friend behind a fence next to the bleachers near first base. He sued.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgement, leading to the plaintiff’s appeal. Wheeler’s appeal centered on a special hazard exception to Cates v. Exhibition Co., 215 N.C. 64, 66, 1 S.E.2d 131, 133 (1939) (sometimes referred to as the “Baseball Rule”).
The appeals court majority noted that “landowners, including baseball field operators, owe a ‘duty to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of their premises for the protection of lawful visitors.’ Nelson v. Freeland, 349 N.C. 615, 632, 507 S.E.2d 882, 892 (1998). Our Supreme Court held that baseball field operators discharge their full duty to spectators in safeguarding them from the danger of being struck by thrown or batted balls by providing adequately screened seats for patrons who desire them, and leaving the patrons their choice between such screened seats and those unscreened.” Cates, 215 N.C. at 66, 1 S.E.2d at 133.
“Furthermore, a baseball field operator is not required to provide screening in all of the areas where patrons may be during a game. Rather, ‘it is enough to provide screened seats, in the areas back of home plate where the danger . . . is greatest, in sufficient number to accommodate as many patrons as may reasonably be expected to call for them on ordinary occasions.’ Erickson v. Lexington Baseball Club, 233 N.C. 627, 628, 65 S.E.2d 140, 141 (1951). ‘Spectators, with ordinary knowledge of the game of baseball . . . accept the common hazards incident to the game . . . and ordinarily there can be no recovery for an injury sustained as a result of being hit by a batted ball.’ Id. at 629, 65 S.E.2d at 141.
Baseball Rule Affords Broad Protection
“We have held that the Baseball Rule shields a baseball field operator from liability, even when a patron is struck in an unusual way by a batted ball, so long as the operator provides a screened section. Hobby v. City of Durham, 152 N.C. App. 234, 236-37, 569 S.E.2d 1, 2 (2002). See also Bryson v. Coastal Plain League, 221 N.C. App. 654, 657-58, 729 S.E.2d 107, 110 (2012) (concluding that summary judgment in favor of defendants was appropriate where patron was struck in an unscreened area along the third base line as other areas of the park were screened).
“Here, it is undisputed that the defendant and the Board provided screened bleacher seats in the area behind home plate (Home Plate Bleachers). Also, the defendant and the Board provided screened bleacher seats along the first base line (First Base Bleachers). There is an area between the Home Plate Bleachers and the First Base Bleachers where patrons sometimes stand. There is no screening there. Instead, there is a gap between the screening protecting the Home Plate Bleachers and the screening protecting the First Base Bleachers. There is, however, a dugout and a six-foot high gate which leads to the field in the area between the screens. And there is a ten-inch gap between the gate and the screening in front of the First Base Bleachers (the Gap). The plaintiff was standing between the bleacher sections when he was struck by a batted ball that had traveled between the Gap. The plaintiff was struck in an unusual way, as was the case with the patron in Hobby. Hobby, 152 N.C. App. at 235, 569 S.E.2d at 1. However, there is no evidence that the screening that was provided by the defendant and the Board was defective. The ball simply traveled along a path where there was no screening and where there was no duty to provide screening. Accordingly, we conclude that the defendant did not breach its duty of care as a matter of law and that summary judgment was appropriate.”
In the dissent, the judge agreed that North Carolina’s Baseball Rule “is correctly stated above.”
However, “the majority has applied the rule to a situation in which the baseball field operator is alleged to have provided inadequate screening down the first base line in addition to the minimum screening required, that is, the areas behind home plate. The instant case provides a fact scenario that has not been addressed by the courts of this State. The majority, however, endorses the imposition of a blanket rule divorced from the circumstances of this case.”
The judge elaborated, noting that “where the baseball field operator chooses to provide additional screening, however, long-established principles of common law negligence impose a duty on the operator to use reasonable care and to provide adequate screening. Screening can be ‘adequate,’ as a matter of law, only when the screening provides reliable and effective protection to spectators who rely on it. Our Supreme Court recognized as much in Cates v. Cincinnati Exhibition Co., in which it concluded that baseball field operators ‘are held to have discharged their full duty to spectators . . . by providing adequately screened seats for patrons who desire them. . . ,’ with the ‘screen being reasonably sufficient as to extent and substance.’ 215 N.C. 64, 66, 1 S.E.2d 131, 133 (1939).
“Once it is properly alleged that an opening—or in this case, a gap—in the screening allowed a baseball to pass through and injure a plaintiff situated in the protected area, only the jury may answer the question of whether the screening was adequately maintained or constructed. See Akins v. Glens Falls City Sch. Dist., 53 N.Y.2d 325, 331, 424 N.E.2d 531, 534, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644 (1981)
“The newly-renovated baseball field in the present case featured screening behind home plate as well as along the first base line. A dugout, guarded by a six-foot high gate, was situated between the screened sections. Critically, a ten-inch gap existed between the gate and the first base line screening. There is conflicting evidence as to exactly where plaintiff was standing when the foul ball struck him, but plaintiff maintains that he was positioned behind the first base line screening near the outfield-side of the gap. Plaintiff maintains that he chose this position because he believed the netting and the fence provided a safe area from which to observe the game, and that he did not maintain the vigilance that he would have otherwise if there had been no safety netting to lull him into a false sense of security.
“After a careful review of the record, I conclude that defendant has failed to establish as a matter of law that the screening provided adequate protection to spectators. My conclusion is not based on the plaintiff’s ‘extraordinary hazard’ theory. Rather, I simply conclude that where an operator provides screening, the operator must provide adequate screening and refrain from enhancing the risks that are inherent to baseball. Here, the defendant provided substantial screening along the first base line, and further protected the spectator area with a fence. The plaintiff alleges that he chose to rely on the screening. Unbeknownst to the plaintiff and others at the park, including a player and an assistant coach, a gap existed between the first base line screening and the fence post. The plaintiff’s sense of security was thus illusory. Consequently, the gap might have increased the plaintiff’s risk of injury.”
“Given these circumstances, summary judgment was improper, as the trial court deprived the jury of the opportunity to decide whether defendant took reasonable precautions to ensure that the screened sections provided adequate protection to spectators.”
Stephen Victor Wheeler v. Central Carolina Scholastic Sports, INC.; Ct. App. N.C.; No. COA16-827, 2017 N.C. App. LEXIS 299; 4/18/17
Attorneys of Record: (for Plaintiff-Appellant) Jerome P. Trehy, Jr. (for Defendant-Appellee) Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP, by Melody J. Jolly and Regan S. Toups.