Liability of Sports Teams to Their Fans
A few weeks ago 44 year old Tonya Carpenter was sitting in the second row of seats at Fenway Park, watching a baseball game. A batter swung at a fastball that shattered his bat. One of the jagged pieces flew up into the stands and struck Tonya Carpenter in the head. She is still in hospital with a significant head injury.
As a personal injury lawyer and a baseball fan I have been asked by a number of my friends whether a lawsuit could be brought if the same thing happened in Canada. My answer is a typical lawyer’s answer: it would depend on the facts.
Spectators of sports like baseball accept a certain level of risk that comes with sitting in the stands. Fans are warned about this risk. Unless you are sitting in the nosebleed seats there is always a risk that a ball might come your way at high speed. You cannot successfully sue for damages simply because you are hit by a ball (or a bat) in the stands.
However, the owners of sports venues have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to keep their fans as safe as reasonably possible. Netting is hung behind home plate to protect fans from high velocity foul balls. If a team knows that a section of seats is particularly dangerous but fails to extend the netting to cover that section, the team could be found liable for a serious injury in that section that could have been prevented.
There is precedent for lawsuits involving tragedies in sports venues. In 2002 a 13 year-old girl died after being struck by a puck while sitting in a section behind the net at a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game. Her family brought a lawsuit which was ultimately settled for $1.2 million. That tragedy led the National Hockey League to implement mandatory safety netting at both ends of hockey rinks.
It remains to be seen whether the serious injury to Tonya Carpenter will result in new fan safety measures in Major League Baseball.
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