Safety & Security

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MLB Might Need a Safety Net After All

21 Jul, 2015

By: Tracey Schelmetic
Federal Lawsuit May Force Organization to Extend Protection for Spectators

It’s not just baseball players who are injured during games. Major League Baseball is now staring down a lawsuit that might wind up mandating more of a safety net to protect spectators.

In early July, a fan hit by a foul ball at Fenway Park had to be admitted to a Boston hospital due to injuries suffered. While the fan was ultimately released, the incident came as a wake-up call.

A long-time Oakland Athletics season ticket-holder recently asked a federal court to protect fans from flying bats and balls by ordering MLB to extend the safety netting at its ballparks the entire length of the foul lines, the Associated Press has reported. The class-action lawsuit filed by Gail Payne on behalf of all fans in the Northern District of California does not seek monetary damages, but instead hopes to force MLB to mandate better protection for spectators by extending the screens that typically cover only a few sections behind the plate so that they run from foul pole to foul pole.

"I think it's important when you have an issue like this not to monetize it, not to say it's about people trying to get a bunch of money," said Steve Berman, a lawyer with the Seattle-based firm of Hagens Berman, told the AP.

According to Bloomberg News, about 1,750 spectators are injured each year by batted balls, mostly fouls, at major-league games, or at least twice every three games. That’s more often than a batter is hit by a pitch, which happened 1,536 times in the 2013 season alone, according to Elias Sports Bureau Inc. Some of the most serious injuries caused by foul balls have involved children in recent years.

For its part, MLB has historically remained generally resistant to the idea of addressing new safety rules to protect spectators.

“There is no epidemic of foul ball damage yet that would warrant some sort of edict or action by the commissioner’s office,” John McHale, the MLB executive vice president who oversees ballpark security, told Bloomberg two years ago.

But MLB may finally be listening to concerns. Typically, the organization leaves decisions about safety netting up to individual teams. In response to the lawsuit, however, the commissioner’s office of MLB issued a statement that seemed to indicate it’s taking the issue seriously.

"Fan safety is our foremost goal for all those who choose to support our game by visiting our ballparks, and we always strive for that experience to be safe and fan-friendly," the release said. "Major League Baseball is in the process of re-evaluating all issues pertaining to fan safety, comfort and expectations."

It may also be a matter of concern about future lawsuits. According to Bloomberg, judges hearing lawsuits brought by injured spectators are becoming more sympathetic to fans. Appeals courts in Georgia and Idaho in recent years refused to adopt a long-standing legal principle, known as the “Baseball Rule,” that shields teams and stadium owners from liability as long as a screen protects spectators in the most dangerous seats -- those behind home plate.

"Fan safety is our foremost goal for all those who choose to support our game by visiting our ballparks, and we always strive for that experience to be safe and fan-friendly," the release said. "Major League Baseball is in the process of re-evaluating all issues pertaining to fan safety, comfort and expectations."

It may also be a matter of concern about future lawsuits. According to Bloomberg, judges hearing lawsuits brought by injured spectators are becoming more sympathetic to fans. Appeals courts in Georgia and Idaho in recent years refused to adopt a long-standing legal principle, known as the “Baseball Rule,” that shields teams and stadium owners from liability as long as a screen protects spectators in the most dangerous seats -- those behind home plate.

According to Associated Press, it is likely the organization will wait until next season to implement any changes.

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