Archive for August, 2009

New Mexico Court Strikes Out Baseball Rule -Weakens Assumption of Risk Doctrine

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

August 5, 2009

The parents of a young boy struck in the head when a batter hit a ball into a picnic area before an Albuquerque Isotopes game can sue the minor league team and the city, an appellate court has ruled.

The New Mexico Court of Appeals declined to adopt the so-called “baseball rule,” which immunizes stadium owners from liability as long as they have screens protecting the stands behind home plate.

The court said there is “no public policy reason to justify bestowing immunity on the business of baseball.” The decision clears the way for a lawsuit by the parents of Emilio Crespin to proceed in state district court in Albuquerque.

The Isotopes and the city of Albuquerque will ask the state Supreme Court to review the decision issued last week.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals decided the case 2-1, with the third judge dissenting.

“We are disappointed in the majority decision,” Isotopes general manager John Traub said.

Four-year-old Emilio Crespin was with his family at a picnic table in the left field stands on July 21, 2003, when Dave Matranga of the New Orleans Zephyrs hit a batting practice home run that fractured the boy’s skull.

According to the family’s lawyer, Crespin suffered permanent brain damage.

The stadium is owned by the city and operated by the Isotopes, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Isotopes lawyers say some form of the “baseball rule” has been adopted in an estimated two dozen states.

They claim New Mexico’s failure to embrace it could have an impact beyond professional baseball – for example, on city softball leagues, Little League baseball, and other sports.

“It creates uncertainty as to what these various recreational facilities need to do in order to meet their duty under the law,” said lawyer Sean Garrett said.

Jacob Vigil, a lawyer for the Crespins, contends the “baseball rule” amounts to special treatment for the sport and stems from an era before baseball was “the multibillion-dollar enterprise that it is today.”

“It was highly unusual in that it provided immunity in a baseball stadium for any injury suffered by a patron so long as the facility had a net behind home plate,” Vigil said.

The Crespins say the ballclub was negligent in having people sit in an unprotected area where the placement of tables turns picnickers’ attention away from the field and where there are no warning signs or announcements when batting practice begins.

“Patrons invite the risk of being hit with a baseball in exchange for an intimate view of the game and the chance to take home a souvenir,” the lawyers wrote.

Court of Appeals Judge Roderick Kennedy said in his dissent that failure to adopt the “baseball rule” was a rejection of “nearly one hundred years of American jurisprudence” and isolates New Mexico from other states.

The court said:

“…the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Liability § 3 (2000) appears to advocate a rejection of per se rules like the baseball rule in favor of the application of modern tort law principles. That section states that “[a p]laintiff’s negligence is defined by the applicable standard for a defendant’s negligence. Special ameliorative doctrines for defining [a] plaintiff’s negligence are abolished.” Id. Among the “ameliorative doctrines” abolished is implied assumption of the risk, which was set out in Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 496A, 496C-496G (1965). See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Liability § 3 cmt. c, at 32. The Restatement (Third) of Torts provides the following relevant example:

…we appreciate the rationale underlying the baseball rule as well as the reasons counseling against its adoption. However, we are persuaded by the commentators and by the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Liability that there is no compelling reason to immunize the owners/occupiers of baseball stadiums. Comparative negligence principles allow the fact finder to take into account the risks that spectators voluntarily accept when they attend baseball games as well as the ability of stadium owners to guard against unreasonable risks that are not essential to the game itself. By contrast, the approach embodied by the baseball rule “excludes an entire class of plaintiffs[,] bestows a subsidy on sophisticated business enterprises[, and] represents the central tenets of a bygone era.” Horton, supra, at 376.”
Case citation: Crespin v. Albuquerque Baseball Club, No. 27,864 (N.M. App. 7/31/2009) (N.M. App., 2009)