On liability

In law school they tought us that fans more or less assume the risk of balls and bats and stuff flying into the stands at ballgames. Not so in Iowa, at least when you’re a kid:

The lawsuit stems from a June 2003 Quad City River Bandits game in Davenport that Tara Sweeney, 8, attended as part of a field trip organized by the Bettendorf parks and recreation department. Sweeney sat in the third or fourth row of bleachers about 30 feet past third base, beyond the area where a net protects spectators, according to court records.

When Sweeney turned her head to talk to a friend, a player lost control of his bat, which traveled about 120 feet and struck the girl in the head. Her mother had signed a liability waiver that absolved the city of responsibility for accidents or injuries on the field trip. But the Sweeneys argued that supervisors of the outing were nonetheless negligent.

A Scott County judge threw out the lawsuit.

But the Supreme Court ruled that the city had “a duty to … protect the children’s safety at the ballpark,” adding that a jury could find parks employees put the child in an “unreasonably hazardous location” to watch the game.

I’ve never known how to feel about the law in this area. I used to just laugh off the concept of stadium/team liability, but then a few years ago a young girl was killed by a puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game. Intellectually I can appreciate that that was a freak occurrence, but as a father I don’t think that would make me feel better if it were my daughter who was killed or, in the case of the flying bat here, injured.

I think I still lean in the direction of “you buys your ticket, you takes your chances,” but I don’t presume to know the right answer here.

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  1. Andrew said...

    Well, sure, but if you’ve just gotten field level, first base side tickets and you take your family to the game, and the ushers tell you that this isn’t a safe enough place for you to sit, you have to go back to the upper deck…you’re freaking out and ready to sue.

    Or did I miss the point?

  2. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Yeah, the way that duty was described in the article is kind of funny. Makes it sound like ballparks have an obligation to trump a given fans’ choice of seats if they have kids with them.  Makes no sense, legally or practically speaking.

    In reality I think it would lead to either (a) nets being placed all the way to the foul poles; or (b) fans in certain sections being forced to sign an additional waiver over and above the one they agree to when they buy a ticket.

  3. Millsy said...

    Who’s the defendant in this?  Is it the city or the team?  It sounds like this is something toward Parks and Recreation and the supervision, rather than the stadium.  When kids are involved in school, camp, etc. the supervisors seem to get the shaft.  Seems similar…but a little different from the team/stadium liability suits (if that makes sense).

  4. MooseinOhio said...

    Not knowing all the details makes it difficult to make a salient comment about the case but as someone who worked for years in adventure education (e.g. high ropes courses, climbing walls, zip lines) that required waivers to be signed I believe that if the organization did it’s due diligence in protecting the individuals safety then they should be protected.  However if an organization is not adhering to proper safety standards (e.g. properly checking climbing harnesses, regularly inspecting and repairing the ropes course) then the organization can be viewed as negligent in it’s duties to create a safe environment. 

    By ‘protected’ I mean not a fault for accidental injury when adhering to standard safety protocols.  However lawsuits can be brought forth for a whole bevy of reasons and while ‘protected’ from liability does not mean protected from having to defend you practice in a court of law and proving that you did pratice good safety protocols.  I believe that is what this case is about in that the parents do not believe the parks department did all they couldhave/should have done to assure the safety of their child. 

    As one who was responsible for other children’s safety I took the job very seriously and fortunately never had to defend my actions as no child was ever injured beyond a minor cut or scrap.  I believe this is partly due to our staff’s attention to safety issues, adherance to safety guidelines and good judgement.  What are good safety guidelines for taking a child to a baseball game?  I know as a father I will position myself between the flight of a ball (or bat in this case) and my child in case one comes flying our way.  I will teach her that while talking at a baseball games is okay it is important to always keep an eye on the game ‘just in case’.  If someone does get hurt I will talk to her about why it may have happened and how she could protect herself in a similar circumstance. 

    As a parent whose child was injured as the result the carelessness or negigence of a temporary care giver I suspect that I may sue as well because one of the roles you play is guardian.  If I believe that you did not take this role seriously I may want to send a message to you and others that it is not okay to miss the mark when my child or other children are involved. 

    Much like in the case of the Bluejackets the result was better safety for all who attend hockey games so the lawsuit did have a positive outcome as hopefully no one else will suffer the same fate while attending a hockey game.  The increase of additional netting was a marginal expense to pay and had limited impact on the viewing experience and it is unfortunate that such protections were not taken sooner.  Maybe if a lawsuit had come sooner or if a judge allowed a case to proceed despite the liability waiver the netting would have been in place prior to the Bluejackests incident. 

    As for this case, without the details I cannot make a legitimate comment but as a parent I pray I am never put in a position to have to make such a decision.

  5. Andy said...

    I basically agree with Moose.  There are some situations where even if everyone is careful, a child can still be hurt. The waiver protects against those situations.  But a waiver doesn’t protect against negligence.  Say kids had a seat behind the net.  There’s a hole in the net, and a kid gets hit by a foul ball that goes through the net.  Or say the supervisor of the kids gets drunk and doesn’t notice that some of the kids wander off and get hurt.  A waiver won’t (and shouldn’t) protect against suit in such a case. 

    This case was dismissed by the trial court.  As I read it, the Supreme Court is just saying that they should have a chance to prove that there was some additional negligence.  This doesn’t mean that they win.

  6. themarksmith said...

    Difficult situation. If you go to a game and are going to sit near the action, I presume you are interested in the game and should be paying attention. Then again, kids aren’t exactly the easiest to get to sit down and pay attention. But if you go to a game, you know the risks. If you are really afraid your kid might get hurt, buy tickets somewhere else in the stadium. It would even save you some money.

    I’ve been to a lot of minor-league baseball games. The closest I got to being hit by a ball was when Toby Hall couldn’t catch the ball while warming up with the pitcher before a game. He missed the ball and it hit the seat next to me. I was so scared by what happened, I didn’t grab the ball. The jerk in front of me didn’t give me the ball, and Toby didn’t give me anything or more than to make sure I was okay.

  7. Michael in Denver said...

    My knee-jerk reaction was that the suit must be baseless, but reading the story, I began to think differently. According to the story:

    1) The city, not the team, is being sued

    2) For choosing to seat a gaggle of kids on a field trip near to the action but unshielded by nets.

    Put it that way, and it does sound like an accident waiting to happen. When booking a field trip, they could have either put the kids up a few more rows or behind the nets.

    This would not apply to adults or to normal family outings with (presumably closely supervised) kids. But field trips are known for relaxed supervision, and groups of kids are known for paying little attention to baseball games, even when close to the action. Given such an inattentive, unprotected audience, unusual care is indicated when selecting seats, IMHO.

  8. Michael said...

    As someone who lives in Davenport and goes to River Bandit games, and even worked there for one summer, I can tell you it’s a bit more complicated than that.  One, it’s not a big stadium, so there is no second deck, and there aren’t that many rows to go up.  That said, when I have gone to games and taken my now 11 year old sister, I make sure that we’re behind the net just so she doesn’t get hit.  I would lean to the side saying that there shouldn’t be a lawsuit because of the waiver, and because the next step is pretty much netting around the whole park.  It’s a beautiful stadium, but it holds less than 5,000.

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