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Court Permits Baseball Game Spectator’s Negligence Action Against University To Proceed
In April 2018, Monica Mayes (Mayes) was struck in the face by a foul ball while attending a baseball game between Marymount University and La Sierra University. Mayes suffered skull fractures and brain damage, among other injuries. Mayes was seated in a grassy area along the third-base line behind the dugout, which extended eight feet from the ground, and there was no protective netting above the dugout.
Mayes sued La Sierra University (La Sierra) for negligence, alleging La Sierra failed to: (1) install protective netting over the dugouts, (2) provide a sufficient number of screened seats for spectators, (3) warn spectators that the only available screened seats were in the area behind home plate, and (4) exercise crowd control in order to remove distractions in the area along the third-base line that diverted spectators’ attention from the playing field.
La Sierra moved for summary judgment and the trial court agreed, holding that Mayes assumed the inherent risk of being hit by a foul ball by attending a baseball game. Mayes appealed.
The Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court. The Court of Appeal explained that some sports and recreational activities are inherently dangerous and imposing a duty to eliminate or mitigate those risks inherent in these activities could alter their nature or chill participation in them, called the assumption of risk doctrine. However, those operating an activity have (1) a duty not to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity, and (2) a duty to take reasonable steps to increase safety and minimize risks of injury of its participants, if such steps could be taken without altering the nature of the activity. Therefore, the assumption of risk doctrine does not absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of its participants.
The Court of Appeal explained that the trial court did not consider La Sierra’s duty to take reasonable steps to increase safety and minimize the risk of injury to spectators at its baseball games if it could do so without changing the nature of the game or activity of watching the game. Additionally, La Sierra did not attempt to show that there were no reasonable steps it could have taken to minimize the risk of being injured by foul falls because it explained no such steps could have been taken without changing the nature of the game or adversely affecting spectators’ enjoyment of the game. Therefore, La Sierra did not meet its burden of showing it is entitled to summary judgment.
The Court of Appeal also held there were disputes of fact concerning the scope of La Sierra’s duty of care to spectators at its baseball games and whether La Sierra breached its duty to Mayes by failing to install protective netting, warn spectators that there was no protective netting over its dugouts, provide a greater number of screened seats at its April 22, 2018 game, or at its playoff games, and exercise crowd control, in order to remove distractions and reduce the risk that spectators who sat in the unscreened areas along the first-and third-base lines would be hit by balls leaving the field of play.
Ultimately, the Court reversed the trial court’s judgment in favor of La Sierra.
Mayes v. La Sierra Univ. (2022) 73 Cal.App.5th 686.
While the Court of Appeal did not answer the question of whether La Sierra University was liable for Mayes’ injuries, this case indicates that there was at least a reasonable question about whether La Sierra should have taken steps to reduce or eliminate the risk of spectators being hit by foul balls. This is a common analysis in these cases so schools and colleges should assess their athletic programs and risks to spectators to ensure that safety measures meet the standards that are generally accepted among sports of that type.