Evolving from a simple pre-Civil War game known as rounders, baseball has become our national pastime. Now featuring 30 professional U.S. teams, baseball’s appeal has stretched across the globe with Olympic medal-winning teams coming from Cuba, Japan, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea. Here in Georgia, over 2.3 million people went to Turner Field last year to witness games featuring the Atlanta Braves. It’s a fair bet that few of those people considered their safety while at a game, yet if what happened at Fenway Park earlier this month is any indication, they should have.
On June 5, a Boston Red Sox fan sitting behind the visitors’ on-deck circle was hit in the head with the barrel of a shattered maple baseball bat. Tonya Carpenter immediately began to bleed profusely and was transported out of the park with what appeared to be “life-threatening” injuries. Her condition was upgraded to “fair” one week later, though her long-term prognosis is currently unknown. Whether she can sue for her injuries is uncertain, due to a longstanding legal principle known as the “Baseball Rule.”
In Massachusetts and much of country, fans in the stands cheer on their teams at their own risk. The Baseball Rule states that fans who choose to sit where balls or shards of bat could hit them have a duty to pay attention for their own safety.
Nevertheless, courts have begun looking at each injury case individually, and some states have weakened the protections of assumption-of-the-risk defenses. Increasingly, there are questions about the applicability of a rule devised in the early part of the 20th century when baseball was played at a much slower pace. State courts have begun to ask whether the “zone of danger” under the existing Baseball Rule should be expanded to include areas behind the dugouts and down the baselines.
While many states honor it, Georgia is one state that has recently rejected the Baseball Rule and given fans who get injured in the stands the right to sue. Last year, the Georgia the Court of Appeals declined to adopt the rule when the father of a 6-year-old girl, whose skull was fractured by a foul ball, filed a lawsuit against the Atlanta Braves. As a result, the case is set for trial to consider liability based upon ordinary principles governing landowner liability for negligence. At a minimum, the injury of the Boston fan may lead many stadiums to reevaluate whether they should extend their mesh netting behind home plate farther down the first and third baselines to protect fans close to the foul lines from flying balls and bats.
Weighing the danger of being hit by a wayward bat or ball against the enhanced experience of being so close to the action is a delicate balance for any fan. Some have argued that nets decrease their enjoyment, while others claim they would sit closer to the field if the netting were extended. The reality is that even the most dedicated are not likely to have quick enough reflexes to respond to a flying object, and casual fans tend to treat a game as a social event and fail to pay complete attention to the action on the field.