The rules of baseball have been under review quite often during the 2014 season. With the introduction of instant replay, pace of play concerns, and the protection of the catcher becoming hot topics, Major League Baseball (MLB) has had its hands full. However the issue of fan protection has also been a hot topic in the insurance world, and is commonly known as the “Baseball Rule.” Could a single flying hot dog have changed this rule, and the fan experience, forever?
The Baseball Rule is an oft referenced defense by landowners (i.e., stadium or arena owners) which limits their legal duty to protect spectators. The landowner’s liability is limited from injuries caused by risks inherent to the game as long as they have provided reasonable protection for fans in the most dangerous areas. This basic protection is usually in the form of protective mesh netting behind home plate and slightly up each baseline. This rule has commonly been applied to protect stadium owners from liability for injuries that are due to foul balls, broken bats, and errant throws into the stands. In a logical extension, the Baseball Rule has likewise been applied to other sports, most notably pucks leaving the ice at hockey games. While a majority of jurisdictions have accepted this tenet, recent cases and court decisions have challenged the standard assumptions. While most challenges have been regarding what areas need higher levels of protection, including farther up the baselines and concession areas in the stadium, the more interesting challenge has involved what constitutes a risk inherent to the game.
While fans in decent seats can expect balls to come their way during the course of a game, promotional items launched into the stands during breaks in play are another story. Flying t-shirts and hot dogs are not risks of the game of baseball, but court decisions to date have extended the Baseball Rule to limit the liability of landowners for injuries. The rationale is that they are not risks associated with the game, but with the ballpark experience. The most notable case to date involves the injuries sustained by John Coomer by a hot dog tossed by the Kansas City Royals mascot Sluggerrr.
Coomer was attending a Royals game in 2009 when he was struck in the head by a foil-wrapped hot dog during a break in play. Coomer suffered a detached retina and has decreased vision, but his case was initially denied under the grounds Coomer was unaware of the risks around him. Coomer was aware of the hot dog toss, a Royals tradition since 2000, but turned away from the mascot. However, in 2014, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Paul Wilson overturned the ruling, stating that the application of the Baseball Rule to promotional items, namely hot dogs, was a matter of law and should have been decided by a judge, not a jury. He also stated that hot dog tosses were not part of enjoying a baseball game like “hearing the crack of 42 inches of solid ash meeting a 95 mile per hour fastball.” While the judge’s familiarity with professional baseball games is questionable (no regular player has ever used a bat over 38 inches), his opinion has sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration.
This ruling could have a far-reaching impact on the fan experience. If projectile promotional items are no longer covered under the Baseball Rule, the more powerful delivery methods may be scaled back to more traditional methods. Luckily for Sluggerrr, he has a few extra games this October to take his mind off his legal problems.