Within the span of about one month, two Red Sox fans have been hit in the face with objects flying from the field while watching a game. One woman, Stephanie Wapenski, was hit in the face with a foul ball on July 10 and required more than 30 stitches. Another, Tonya Carpenter, who made national news, was hit in the head with a broken bat on June 5. Carpenter suffered traumatic brain injuries with the broken bat basically shattering her skull. Wapenski and Carpenter were sitting in the same area in the stands.
Most people understand that when you go to a ball game you have to pay attention because depending on where you sit, there is a chance that you may be hit with a ball or a bat. This understanding stems from our general acceptance of the “Baseball Rule,” which essentially gives immunity to stadium operators and ball clubs from liability from most game-related fan injuries. It is the theory that fans go to games knowing the inherent risk of getting hurt, and that the inherent risk is part of the thrill of the game.
On the back of every Red Sox ticket stub, you can find the following: “The holder of this ticket voluntarily assumes all risks and danger of property loss and personal injury incidental to the game of baseball and related activities at Fenway Park, including specifically [but not exclusively] those relating to the structure and conditions of Fenway Park, and the danger of being injured by thrown or flying objects including bats and balls.”
“Assuming the risk” is just another way of saying that Fenway Park, the Red Sox and/or the MLB are not responsible for paying for your injuries.
But how much risk are fans expected to assume? If a foul ball is flying into the crowd at a speed of 100 miles-per-hour, it’s difficult to say if the average person can react to keep themselves out of harm’s way. The “Baseball Rule” has been around since the time when baseball was just different – stadium seating was roomier and fans sat further away and were not distracted by the jumbotron, loud music or their cell phones. And players simply were not as strong as they are today, so the threat of 100 mile-an-hour balls flying into the crowd was less of a concern.
Soon after Carpenter’s horrific accident, MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred, commented that he (and the League) was considering expanded netting, bat regulations, and the wrapping of bat handles to increase fan safety at all parks, not just at Fenway. Manfred also explained that the decision to add more protective netting is a “management” decision and did not need to undergo the collective bargaining negotiation process. He noted that he did not have a specific timetable in mind for implementation of new safety precautions.
While the decision to add more protection for the fans seems like an easy one, the hesitation comes from the fact that many fans still believe in the “Baseball Rule.” They do not want their view of the game obstructed and argue that the part of the baseball experience is to be in the thick of things and that the possible glory that comes with catching a foul ball is something that cannot be sacrificed.
However, not all fans agree. Gail Payne, an Oakland A’s fan and season ticket holder since 1968,
does not agree and will not wait for change on the commissioner’s timetable. Payne filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in the Northern District of California on Monday, basically asking the court to order the MLB to extend the safety netting the entire length of the foul lines at all of its ballparks. It’s important to note that Payne does not ask for any money, only for action on the part of the League.
The commissioner’s office released a statement in response to the lawsuit, reiterating that fan safety is of the utmost importance and that it was discussing safety issues with the clubs.
What do you think? If fans are expected to assume the risk of injury at baseball games, should the MLB be obligated to implement more safety precautions to minimize the risk of injury? Will those safety precautions change the baseball experience?