The summer is a great time to go outside and enjoy the nice weather and sunshine, and a time when many people take advantage of the ability to be more active and participate in a variety of sports. However, people do not always consider the liability ramifications of participating in sports, or even merely being a fan in the stands. A few weeks ago, a woman got hit with a piece of a broken bat at a Red Sox game. This is a reminder that sometimes we can encounter danger when we least expect it. See the stories in the Boston Globe and in USA Today for more information on that accident.
The Baseball Rule discussed regarding the Red Sox fan’s injury basically states that the stadium is not legally responsible for spectator injuries sustained when a foul ball or broken bat flies into the stands. The rule was most recently applied in the case of Costa v. Boston Red Sox Baseball Club, 61 Mass. App. Ct. 299, 809 N.E.2d 1090 (2004), upholding a ruling of the Superior Court granting summary judgment to the defendant. The theory behind the baseball rule is rooted in assumption of risk, an area which remains very much alive in sport. The Baseball Rule does not shield stadium operators for liability in their entirety. A duty does remain to provide protective screening where the risk of immediate and unavoidable danger is at its highest, called the “zone of danger,” not just in baseball, but also in other sports, most notably hockey. A recent law review article by James Kozlowski, Professor at George Mason University discussed this rule in greater detail. The screening behind home plate at a ballpark, the netting behind the boards at a hockey game, and the prohibition of leaving your seat at a hockey game during live play are all examples of the limited duty that the stadium operator owes fans due to the Baseball Rule.
Assumption of risk does not just apply to spectators, but to participants as well. Generally, athletes assume the risk of injury incurred by participating in sports. This is true of being struck by a golf ball on the course, as in Gray v. Giroux, 49 Mass. App. Ct. 436, 730 N.E.2d 338 (2000). Additionally, there are two trial court level rulings, Orth v. Novelli, No. CIV. A. 95-0990-A, 1997 WL 805469 (Mass. Super. Nov. 11, 1997) and Mangone v. Pickering, No. CIV.A. 95-0357, 1997 WL 197232 (Mass. Super. Apr. 14, 1997) which detail the culpability standard for being struck by a golf club. In Orth the standard that must be met is negligence. In Mangone the standard that must be met is recklessness. This split of opinion must be resolved at the appellate level, and presumably will be heard at some point in time. This also applies in a contact sport context. In the case of Gauvin v. Clark, 404 Mass. 450, 450, 537 N.E.2d 94, 95 (1989), a hockey player was not held liable for injuring an opponent by hitting him with the butt end of his stick during a faceoff. The action was in violation of the rules of hockey, but not so egregious as to impose liability.
There are exceptions to this rule, where liability is imposed in sports injury cases. The most famous case in this area of law is Hackbert v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979); 444 U.S. 931 (cert denied) (1979). In the Hackbert case, a Denver Broncos defensive back, Mr. Hackbert, was intentionally struck in the back of the head by Bengals running back Charles Clark after the whistle had been blown on a play. The court held that the blow occurred outside of the rules and scope of the game, and therefore the doctrine of assumption of risk did not apply. Similarly, in Massachusetts, the court has articulated that where willful, wanton, or reckless conduct in disregard of the safety of the other player, there may be liability. This standard is discussed in great detail in the Gauvin case cited above.
In conclusion, an area of limited liability exists with regard to sports related injuries, for both athletes and spectators at all levels of the game. Generally, stadium operators and athletes are protected from liability if the injury occurs during the normal course of the game, regardless of whether the cause of the injury is allowed by the rules of game or not. However, when an injury occurs arising out of reckless or intentional conduct, liability may exist. This liability may even exist outside of the context of the sport or even watching the sporting event, as a stadium operator may be held liable for injuries arising out of a man being beaten up in the men’s room of a professional sporting event.