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Vol. 11 - Issue 2

February 28, 2022


A Rarity: Spectator Can Pursue A Claim For Getting Hit By A Foul Ball


Regular readers of Coverage Opinions know that I have a soft spot for cases where spectators, hit by a foul ball, seek recovery from stadium operators for their injuries.  The outcomes of these disputes are fairly predicable: the injured spectator goes home empty handed.

This is on account of the so-called “baseball rule,” an assumption of the risk doctrine adopted by the great majority of courts nationally that have confronted this issue.  This rule limits the duty owed by baseball stadium operators to spectators injured by foul balls.  It generally provides that a stadium operator is not liable for a foul ball injury so long as it screens the most dangerous part of the stadium and provides screened seats to as many spectators as may reasonably be expected to request them.                

In late January, the California Court of Appeal issued a published opinion, in Mayes v. La Sierra University, holding that a spectator could pursue a claim for serious injuries sustained when struck by a foul ball at a college baseball game.

The trial court dismissed the suit, calling it a “textbook primary assumption of the risk case.”  The appellate court reversed.

Why did Monica Mayes succeed – at least for the moment – when so many other injured spectators, from sea to shining sea, have not?

It was all about the facts. This was not your typical case when the injured fan was sitting twenty rows up, behind third base, in a typical stadium setting.  Instead, Mayes, attending a college game (where her son was pitching), was seated in a “grassy area along the third-base line, behind the dugout, which extended eight feet above the ground. and there was no protective netting above the dugout.” 

In addition, it was a playoff game (hundreds in attendance) and there were very few seats behind protective fencing (two temporary bleachers to accommodate 20 people each).  There were also distractions for Mayes, as people were “‘walk[ing] around freely’ in the area where Mayes was sitting, and people had also erected tents and umbrellas in the area. The tents, umbrellas, and nonstationary people were generally causing distractions and blocking Mayes's view of the playing field.”  

Of note, Mayes had attended 300 to 400 baseball games in which her two sons had played.

It is a lengthy decision with a discussion of numerous “baseball rule” cases.  In summary, the court ruled that Mayes could get to a jury for the following reasons:

“Mayes showed there were triable issues 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 of care to Mayes. All of the evidence adduced on the motion showed there are triable issues of fact concerning whether La Sierra had a duty of care, or breached its duty of care, in failing to (1) install protective netting over and beyond its dugouts; (2) warn spectators that there was no protective netting over its dugouts; (3) provide a greater number of screened seats at its April 22, 2018 game, or at its playoff games, and (4) 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. Reasonable jurors could reach differing conclusions on these duty and breach-of-duty questions.”   

In its final analysis, Mayes v. La Sierra College goes against significant precedent nationally on the spectator-injury issue.  So, despite its unique facts, courts going forward – in California and elsewhere -- are sure to be pointed to it by others seeking to recover for a foul ball mishap.

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