California Appellate Court Rejects ‘The Baseball Rule’ in Foul Ball Injury Case

California Appellate Court Rejects ‘The Baseball Rule’ in Foul Ball Injury Case

(Editor’s Note: Below is an excerpt from the most recent Sports Litigation Alert, which features five case summaries and eight to ten articles in each issue. The Alert also offers subscribers the most exhaustive searchable archive of sports law material in the country.)

By John E. Tyrrell and Matthew S. Cioeta, of Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey

In April of 2018, plaintiff/appellant Monica Mayes was attending her son’s collegiate baseball game between visiting Marymount University (for whom her son was pitching) and La Sierra University, when she was struck in the face by a foul ball. Mayes v. La Sierra University, No. E076374 (Cal.App.4th. Jan. 7, 2022). Mayes was sitting in a grassy area behind the third base dugout when she was hit. Id. at 2. The roof of the dugout was eight feet off the ground, and there was no protective net or fencing above the dugout. Id.

Mayes made four allegations in her complaint alleging that La Sierra was negligent in maintaining the premises of the baseball field: (1) La Sierra failed to provide protection of any sort over its dugouts; (2) The university failed to warn spectators of the lack of protection; (3) La Sierra failed to provide a sufficient number of protected seats for spectators; and (4) the school failed to exercise proper crowd control. Id.

On appeal, the California Appellate Court considered whether the trial court erroneously granted La Sierra’s Motion for Summary Judgment when it held that Mayes’s negligence claim was barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Id. In support of its Motion, La Sierra offered the following facts: the university did not sell tickets nor charge admission to the game, and they did not dictate where spectators where they could or could not sit at games. Id. at 5.  Mayes had previously attended over 300 of her sons’ baseball games and was familiar with the fact that baseballs frequently flew into spectator areas. Id. Since 2009, there had been no reported spectator injuries caused by baseballs hit out of the playing field at La Sierra. Id.

Additionally, La Sierra asserted that it offered portable bleachers for seating, which were behind home plate and a protective backstop and accessible for any spectator. Id. La Sierra did not ask any of the spectators in the grass along the baselines to take down their tents or umbrellas, nor did it request spectators to sit behind the backstop. Id. The university would only assist with crowd control if the game’s umpire requested it. Id. Furthermore, there was no requirement for a California Pacific Conference member or a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) institution to put protective netting over the dugouts. Id.

In response, Mayes offered, while there were bleachers behind the backstop at home plate, there was only one seat available and “the bleachers were on a hilly, rocky, and dirt-covered area. The dirt was blowing around and making it ‘potentially dangerous’ to sit in that area.” Id. at 6. Mayes and her husband proceeded to set up their folding chairs in the grass along the third base line, where hundreds of other spectators had done the same, roughly 60 feet from the playing field. Id. at 6-7. There were no posted signs advising the crowd that they had the option to ask La Sierra’s athletic director or the umpire to control the crowd. Id. at 6.

Mayes had been to hundreds of her sons’ baseball games over the previous 15 years, and was not concerned for her safety because she assumed that La Sierra had protective netting over the dugouts like every other field she had been. Id. at 7. She had never seen a spectator struck in the face by a ball. Id.

Mayes offered expert opinion testimony from a ballpark safety and management expert.