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Take me out to the ballgame – then to the hospital

For many Americans, there’s no place better to spend a summer evening than the ballpark. Baseball is still America’s pastime, and going to major league games provides great nostalgia as well as entertainment.

We’re all familiar with the sensory experience at the ballpark: The smell of the food, the sound of the crack of the bat. But what about the sting of the foul ball, or the concussion caused by a broken bat? Fan injuries caused by balls and bats are surprisingly common, and these incidents can even be fatal. According to one study, about 1,750 fans are injured each year while attending major league games – mostly by foul balls.

Do injured fans have legal recourse, or do we just have to accept the risks associated with watching the game in-person? This is a difficult question to answer, because courts around the United States don’t always rule consistently on issues related to spectator injuries.

Many baseball parks include warnings on tickets, signs and in PA announcements essentially saying that the owners assume no liability for injuries suffered as a result of flying objects related to the game (bats, balls, etc). They also argue in court that watching baseball is an inherently dangerous activity, and fans know or should know the risks they are taking.

Does this mean, however, that stadium owners don’t have to make the game as safe as it can reasonably be for spectators? Recently, an Oakland A’s fan filed a lawsuit in Northern California against Major League Baseball. The plaintiff, who is seeking class-action status on behalf of other fans, argues that safety netting should be installed in every major league stadium down the first and third base lines. In her opinion, these nets should extend all the way to the foul poles.

Team and stadium owners must walk a fine line when it comes to safety vs. entertainment. On one hand, spectators like the idea of catching a foul ball. On the other hand, no fan wants to suffer permanent brain damage or death as the result of a speeding ball or broken piece of bat. And stadium owners don’t want to face premises liability lawsuits, even if their liability protection is well established.

It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit will impact netting policies at major league stadiums, if at all.

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