Reversal Puts Teams on Notice Regarding Duty Owed to Spectators

Oct 8, 2004

Professional sports teams in New Jersey may owe spectators a greater duty of care after a New Jersey appellate court reversed a trial court’s decision to rule against a spectator, who was injured at a baseball game. The court found, specifically, that defendants must recognize the “inevitable” that a spectator will be distracted in a concession area, and has “a concomitant duty to exercise reasonable care.”
The plaintiff was injured by a foul ball, while standing in line at a concession cart. The plaintiff sued the team, the Newark Bears, and the company that operated the cart, Gourmet Dining Services.
The defendants moved for summary judgment. In her analysis, the judge honed in on Schneider v. American Hockey and Ice Skating Ctr., 342 N.J. Super. 527, 777 A.2d 380 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 387, 788 A.2d 772 (2001). In that opinion, the court held that operators of sports facilities, such as hockey rinks and baseball stadiums, owe spectators a limited duty of care which has two components:
“(1) to provide protected areas sufficient for those spectators who may reasonably desire protected areas and
“(2) to provide protected areas for spectators in the most dangerous section of the stand, for example, behind home plate in baseball and behind the goals in hockey.”
The two courts differed in their interpretation of the case, and in their application of the extenuating circumstances.
The appeals court noted that the arrangement of the concession carts was temporary because construction of the stadium had not been completed. The carts had been arranged, by mutual agreement, so that they ringed the stadium and faced the field.
The court tied the location of the carts to the second component from Schneider — to screen any spectator area that is subject to a high risk of injury.
“When we said that the second component ‘may be satisfied by the operator providing screened seats behind home plate in baseball and behind the goals in hockey[,]’ our identification of those locations was not intended to be exhaustive nor immutable. Id. at 534. Rather, ‘the measure of that duty is due care under all the circumstances.’ Ibid.
“While watching the game, either seated or standing in an unprotected viewing area, spectators reasonably may be expected to pay attention and to look out for their own safety; but the activities and ambiance of a concession area predictably draw the attention of even the most experienced and the most wary fan from the action on the field of play.
“It is not only foreseeable, but inevitable, that in the process of placing orders or reaching for money or accepting the purchases or striking up conversations with others on line, spectators will be distracted from the action on the field and the risk of injury from flying objects will be increased significantly. The defendants are engaged in a commercial venture which by its nature induces spectators to let down their guard. They have a concomitant duty to exercise reasonable care to protect them during such times of heightened vulnerability. The imposition of a duty under these circumstances, particularly where it involves a temporary arrangement, is not only fair but reasonable. The question remains whether that duty was breached.” Maisonave et al. v. The Newark Bears et al., S.Ct.N.J.App.Div., Docket No. A-4144-02T3 7/12/04
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Frank DiGiovanni argued the cause for appellants (Kessler, DiGiovanni and Jesuele, attorneys; Frank DiGiovanni, on the brief). (for defendants) Timothy J. Schipske argued the cause for respondent The Newark Bears (Rawle and Henderson, attorneys; Mr. Schipske, on the brief). James J. Horan argued the cause for respondent Gourmet Dining (Mautone and Horan, attorneys; Mr. Horan, on the brief).


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