By Christopher Calnan
A longstanding law has protected professional baseball from litigious injured fans, but teams are increasingly taking measures to guard against the unsavory optics produced by errant balls and bats.
The so-called Baseball Rule shields teams and puts the onus on baseball fans to take responsibility for their safety while attending games. Yet changes to ballparks have narrowed the distance between players and spectators so risk-conscious teams are installing additional protective netting.
From a legal standpoint, the courts generally rule in favor of the park owners. In November 2016, a U.S. District Court judge of the Northern District of California dismissed a class action lawsuit involving Major League Baseball seeking additional safety netting at ballparks.
The complaint was prompted by two MLB fans injured in separate incidents at both the Oakland Coliseum and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. Judge Gonzalez Rogers ruled that MLB’s evidence produced no “credible or immediate threat” that the Oakland A’s fan would be hit by a foul ball or bat and she failed to show that a legal standing was independently established due to “deprivation of her ability to enjoy the game.”
Regarding the Dodger’s fan, Gonzalez ruled that MLB’s data demonstrated that “her risk of injury is very small at 0.018%,” and unlikely to reoccur particularly because the Washington native did not plan to return to Dodger Stadium to attend a game as a result of her fear of a similar injury, according to baseball expert Ed Edmonds, a law professor at Notre Dame Law School.
About 1,750 MLB fans are injured while attending games each year. That comes to about 23.7 fans per every 1 million attending games, according to a 2014 report by Bloomberg News.
Braves Take the Initiative
In Georgia, the Atlanta Braves plan to expand safety netting at its new ballpark beyond the length suggested by the commissioner’s office to the dugouts. The SunTrust Park, which is scheduled to open April 14, will be more than 31 feet high and reach to the far end of each dugout instead of the end nearer home plate as recommended by MLB.
In 2010, a 6-year-old girl’s skull was shattered when she was struck by a foul ball behind the visiting team’s dugout at the Braves’ previous ballpark, Turner Field. A related lawsuit against the Braves and MLB has yet to go to trial.
Meanwhile, the Braves plan to integrate more safety features into the building of its new SunTrust Park, team president of business Derek Schiller told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“You want to try to have an environment where you have what you believe to be the appropriate level of coverage of netting for how your ballpark is designed,” he said. “And we believe that this net gives us the appropriate level of coverage for the most number of seats for this particular ballpark.”
The well-established Baseball Rule dictates that fans attend games at their own risk, absolving the teams of any legal obligation in cases of injury. However, there’s no guarantee that team owners will be free of all responsibility in such cases. The Idaho Supreme Court and appellate courts in both Indiana and Georgia have disregarded the Baseball Rule and held ballparks liable for spectator injuries.
Regardless of the legal rulings, several high-profile incidents have raised the MLB’s concern with public perception of ballpark safety. One notable case involved Red Sox fan Tonya Carpenter who was struck in the face by a broken bat in mid-2015. She suffered life-threatening injuries including brain trauma and was carried off the field on a stretcher.
Such incidents can shake the confidence of fans, and MLB teams are faced with a problem of competing desires. Fans seek safety but also want the same experiences to which they’ve become accustomed such as unobstructed views, catching foul balls and collecting autographs.
In December 2015, MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr. issued safety recommendations encouraging netting 70 feet from home plate. He also suggested online ticket buyers receive information about which seats are protected by netting. The idea is to enable fans to decide the amount of safety they require while attending games.
“… This recommendation attempts to balance the need for an adequate number of seating options with our desire to preserve the interactive pre-game and in-game fan experience that often centers around the dugouts, where fans can catch foul balls, see their favorite players up close and, if they are lucky, catch a tossed ball or other souvenir,” he said in a written statement.
Expert Says Fans Get Used to Extra Netting
Polls show that most fans approve of extra netting; the approval by women outnumbers men by a nearly 2-1 margin, said baseball law expert Jordan Kobritz, chairman of The State University of New York-Cortland’s sports management department.
“Surveys taken by clubs after installing additional netting shows fans get used to it with only a small minority of complaints,” he said.
In April 2016, an HBO Real Sports, Marist Poll reported that 54 percent of baseball fans approve of additional protective netting for areas close to the field. Sixty percent of the women polled favored netting compared with 48 percent of the men.
“Public awareness exists about fan safety at Major League baseball games, especially when it comes to children. This should allow the League to cautiously put up additional safety netting,” said Keith Strudler, director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication. “The challenge for baseball is to institute safety measures without upsetting fans who would rather have an unobstructed view.”