For more than a century, ballpark owners have enjoyed nearly automatic protection from injury lawsuits under the legal doctrine known as “assumption of risk,” or what some refer to as “the baseball rule.” Under this doctrine, the courts have held that the dangers inherent in baseball are widely known and that fans therefore assume the risk in attending games. Stadium owners do have a “limited duty” to provide reasonable protective measures in the most dangerous areas of their parks and sufficient seating in the protected areas for those who typically may want to sit there, but baseball is not held to the same patron safety standards as other businesses. At the same time, some courts have applied the doctrine known as “contributory negligence.” Basically, this doctrine holds that if a fan, fully aware of the dangers of the game, is injured while sitting in an unprotected area, he has, by assuming such risk, contributed to his own injury and is therefore not entitled to recovery of damages.
Because of the changing nature of the game and the venues in which it is played, more recent cases have sought to refine the traditional “assumption of risk” defense. These cases, in effect, have redefined “limited duty” to mean more than just screening behind home plate and warnings on the back of tickets and the safety announcements before games. The most recent example of this change is the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling in an injury lawsuit brought against the City of Albuquerque and the Albuquerque Baseball Club, i.e., the Albuquerque Isotopes.
The parents of a four-year-old child brought suit against the city, which owns the stadium, and the Isotopes after their son was struck on the head by a batted ball during pre-game batting practice while the family was eating in the picnic area located in fair territory just beyond the left field wall. The stadium does not have protective screening around this picnic area and the picnic tables are perpendicular to the field, so that fans seated at the tables do not face the field. The plaintiffs argued that because of this design, fans are not focused on the game. In addition, they were not given any warning that batting practice had begun.
The district court in which the case was first heard applied the traditional “limited duty” requirement, granting summary judgment to the defendants. The Court of Appeals reversed this judgment “on the ground that, under the particular circumstances alleged, there are issues of material fact precluding summary judgment,” thus rejecting a strict “limited duty” doctrine. The state Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s rejection of a limited duty rule. In doing so, the New Mexico Supreme Court adopted a new limited duty rule which states that “an owner/occupant of a commercial baseball stadium owes a duty that is symmetrical to the duty of the spectator. Spectators must exercise ordinary care to protect themselves from the inherent risk of being hit by a projectile that leaves the field of play and the owner/occupant must exercise ordinary care not to increase that inherent risk.” The case has been referred back to the district court “for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.” If the plaintiffs win this lawsuit, it will be a further limitation on the assumption of risk defense. Stay tuned.