Sports-injury litigation took on a new dimension in New Jersey last week as the state Supreme Court ruled that a ballpark patron hit by a foul ball while buying a beer can sue the park owner for negligence.
The ruling alters the long-standing "baseball rule" -- a limited-duty-of-care doctrine that for more than a century has shielded stadium owners from litigation. Fans agree to assume a risk of injury, such as from a foul ball or thrown bat, as part of the experience of being close to the game. To foster that up-close feel, there is very little separating fans and the field.
But the Sept. 13 ruling, which affects the eight minor league baseball stadiums that have opened in New Jersey in the past 10 years, may prompt teams and owners to erect nettings, screens and other protective barriers between fans and the field to avoid liability.
Justice James Zazzali led a 5-2 majority in striving to keep the baseball rule viable for parts of the ballpark but not others. He drew a distinction between "the stands" -- actually, the seats at a stadium -- and concourse areas where concession stands are typically located.
"We hold that the limited duty rule, which restricts the tort liability of owners, applies in situations where an injury occurs in the stands," Zazzali wrote in Maisonave v. Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, Inc., A-59/60-04. "However, public policy and fairness require application of traditional negligence principles in all other areas of the stadium, including, but not limited to, concourses and mezzanine areas."
In this case, Louis Maisonave was hit with a foul ball while buying a beer from a vending cart at Newark's Bears and Eagles Stadium in 1999, when the new ballpark's permanent concessions were still under construction. Vending carts were located on the mezzanine, along both the first- and third-base lines, in full view of the field. In fact, since vendors stood with their backs to the field, patrons could watch the game as they were buying food and beverages. But according to the suit, Maisonave was chatting with other fans and reaching for money when someone said, "Look out!"
In somewhat related news, a California appellate court ruled today that a player in an amateur baseball league who was hit in the face by a ball batted by his coach during a pre-game warm-up drill cannot sue the league, as he assumed the risk of such injuries. Vogel v. American Amateur Baseball Congress, Nos. A105405, A106473 (Sept. 22, 2005, 1st App. Dist., Div. 3) (unpublished).