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Baseball Field Owner May Be Liable For Spectator Injured By Foul Ball
Twelve-year-old Summer J. (Summer) attended the United States Baseball Federation (US Baseball) national team trials at Blair Field, a stadium located on the campus of California State University Long Beach (Cal State Long Beach) and owned and maintained jointly by Cal State Long Beach and the City of Long Beach and operated by US Baseball. While seated in an area of the stadium without a protective screen or netting, Summer was struck in the face by a line drive foul ball, which seriously injured her and damaged her optic nerve.
Summer, through her guardian ad litem, sued US Baseball, Cal State Long Beach, and the City of Long Beach for negligence and premises liability. Summer alleged that there was inadequate protective netting at Blair Field behind home plate, a “zone of danger,” and that US Baseball, Cal State Long Beach, and the City of Long Beach were aware of the inadequate nature of the netting and nevertheless failed to provide any warnings of the danger of being struck by a batted ball.
US Baseball argued that Summer’s claims could not proceed due to the primary assumption of risk doctrine, which generally prohibits a plaintiff who willingly assumed the risk inherent in activity from recovering for injuries resulting from participating in that activity. US Baseball also argued that the dangerous condition at Blair Field was open and obvious, which relieved them of any duty to warn or correct the condition.
After filing her initial complaint, Summer requested to amend her complaint to include additional factual allegations to support her claim, including those about “the dangers at Blair Field from hard-hit foul balls that were not inherent risks in the sport of baseball.” The trial court held that the claims in Summer’s complaint were barred due to the primary assumption of risk doctrine and her proposed amended complaint would not correct this issue. The trial court issued a judgment in favor of US Baseball and awarded US Baseball its costs. Summer appealed.
On appeal, the Court noted that according to the primary assumption of risk doctrine, in a sport setting a “plaintiff is said to have assumed the particular risks inherent in a sport by choosing to participate and the defendant generally owes no duty to protect the plaintiff from those risks.” When the primary assumption of risk doctrine applies, the duty of care “operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants [is] only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.” However, “[a]s a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risk of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so.”
Baseball argued that they had “no legal duty to eliminate the inherent risk of being hit by a ball while watching a baseball game or to otherwise protect a spectator from being hit by a ball.” However, the Court explained that “as the entity responsible for operating Blair Field on that date, US Baseball had a duty not only to use due care not to increase the risks to spectators inherent in the game but also to take reasonable measures that would increase safety and minimize those risks without altering the nature of the game.” The Court noted that installing protective netting down the first and third baselines, which may have protected Summer, would not alter the nature of the game of baseball, as indicated by the plans of major and minor league baseball teams to do so for the 2020 season. The Court held that Summer should be permitted to file her proposed amended complaint and to present evidence to the trial court to support her allegations.
Summer also argued that “US Baseball was aware of the inadequate nature of the netting at Blair Field, yet failed to warn her of the danger of being struck by a foul ball where she was seated.” US Baseball countered that the “danger was so obvious it had no duty to warn Summer of the risk.” The Court concluded that the question of “whether the danger of injury from foul balls in unprotected seating was sufficiently obvious to relieve US Baseball of its duty to warn Summer of its existence” was a question of fact that should be resolved at trial.
Ultimately, the Court reversed the previous judgment entered in favor of US Baseball and granted Summer’s request to file her proposed amended complaint. Summer also recovered the costs of her appeal.
Summer J. v. United States Baseball Federation (2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 261, as modified on denial of reh’g (Mar. 9, 2020), review denied (June 17, 2020).
While the Court did not answer the question of whether US Baseball was liable for Summer’s injuries, this case indicates that it is possible for liability to exist under similar circumstances. Accordingly, schools should assess their athletic fields and confirm that these locations contain current safety measures that are generally accepted among athletic fields of that type. Schools should further exercise due care not to increase the risks to spectators inherent in observing the game, and also take reasonable measures to increase safety and minimize risks to spectators without altering the nature of the game.