North Carolina Appellate Court Upholds Summary Judgment for Durham Bulls; Calls Most Recent Challenge to the “Baseball Rule” Out

By Carla Varriale-Barker and Nathan J Law, of Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, Ltd

The Court of Appeals for North Carolina is the latest court to uphold the specialized duty of care known as the “Baseball Rule.” The Baseball Rule protects the owners and operators of baseball stadiums from negligence claims brought by spectators who are injured by misdirected baseballs (as well as bats and, depending on the jurisdiction, other promotional items) so long as the owner or operator provides an adequate number of protected seats.

In 2015, the DeBlasio family, originally from Pittsburgh, PA, moved to Durham, NC after the father was relocated for work. In August of that year, the father’s company held a “meet-and-greet” picnic to celebrate the DeBlasio family’s move and introduce the family to other area employees. The picnic took place at Durham Bulls Athletic Part, home of the Tampa Bay AAA minor league affiliate, Durham Bulls, during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirate AAA affiliate Indianapolis Indians. The family gathered in the Picnic Area of the ballpark, located at field level in the left field corner of the stadium, approximately 110 feet past protective netting that extended from home plate to the team dugouts. In the Picnic Area, three warning signs declared “PLEASE BE AWARE OF OBJECTS LEAVING THE PLAYING FIELD.” During the game, the DeBlasio family’s 11-year-old daughter – who herself was a softball player and admitted baseball fan, who attended Major League games in-person, and watched games on television – was struck in the face by a foul ball while chatting with her mother in the Picnic Area. The accident caused severe injuries, including multiple dislocated and teeth and broken bones requiring multiple endodontic and orthodontic surgeries.

In December 2016, the daughter filed suit against the Durham Bulls Baseball Club (“the Bulls”) alleging the team’s negligence led to her injuries. After discovery closed, the Bulls moved for summary judgment and argued “the Baseball Rule” – a precedent adopted by North Carolina in the 1930s – barred her suit. The Baseball Rule states owners and operators of baseball facilities cannot be held liable for injuries from batted or wildly throw balls as a matter of  law by providing an adequate number of screened seats for those who desire them. The trial court agreed and granted the Bulls’ motion, and the Plaintiff appealed.

Under North Carolina law, the Baseball Rule states that baseball field owners and operators “are held to have discharged their full duty to spectators in safeguarding them from the danger of being struck by thrown or batted balls by providing adequately screened seats for patrons who desire them and leaving the patrons to their choice between such screened seats and those unscreened.” Bryson v. Coastal Plain League, LLC, 221 N.C. App. 654, 657, 729 S.E.2d, 107, 109 (2012). Notably, the Baseball Rule does not impose an obligation to provide protective screening for all seats or even for all spectators who might want them; rather the Baseball Rule requires only that a baseball field operator to protect as many patrons as reasonably possible by providing screened seats in the areas of the ballpark behind home plate and where the danger of a sharp foul ball is greatest. Erikson v. Lexington Baseball Club, 233 N.C. 627, 628, 65 S.E.2d 140, 141 (1951). On appeal, the Plaintiff argued the Baseball Rule did not apply to her case since (1) she lacked sufficient knowledge of the game to appreciate the potential for injury; (2) she was not afforded a choice of where she sat for the game; (3) she was not a spectator since she was sitting in the Picnic Area; (4) the Picnic Area was negligently designed; and (5) the Baseball Rule is antiquated and should be abandoned.

The North Carolina Appeals Court’s decision in William S. Mills v. The Durham Bulls Baseball Club, Inc., addressed and supported the dismissal  each of Plaintiff’s arguments. Most notably in the decision is the Appeals Court handling of Plaintiff’s argument that the Baseball Rule should not apply since she was not afforded a choice of where to sit to attend the game. However, the “choice” set forth in the Baseball Rule is the choice on the part of a spectator to attend a baseball game in an unprotected seat when the ballpark operator has otherwise offered a reasonable number of protected seats. The Court pointed to the North Carolina Supreme Court decision in Erickson where the Baseball Rule’s applicability was upheld even after a spectator was struck by a ball after the spectator bought a general admission ticket to a game and arrived after “all off the screened seats were occupied.” Erickson, 233 N.C. at 628, 65 S.E.2d at 141. The Erickson Court refused to abdicate the Baseball Rule because the spectator made the choice to remain and watch the game in an unprotected seat with knowledge that he could be injured by a batted ball. Id. 

The Appellate therefore held the Baseball Rule similarly precluded liability in this case since Plaintiff and her family made the decision to stay and watch the game from Picnic Area rather than leave and not watch the game at all. The Appellate Court specifically pointed to the Erickson holding and the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling the “choice” embodied is not the choice between a screened seat or a non-screened seat but is the choice on the part of the spectator to attend a baseball game in an unprotected seat when the ballpark operator has satisfied its duty to spectators by offering a reasonable number of protected seats. Id. In this case, the Appellate Court found that Plaintiff and her family, after arriving at the ballpark and seeing their seats were in the unscreened area, they nonetheless made the choice to stay and sit in the unprotected Picnic Area.

The Baseball Rule is the prevailing standard (versus a common law negligence standard), but it has recently come under scrutiny as there have been some high-profile spectator injury cases and have some safety activists have argued that ballpark owners and operators should do more to protect fans. As evidence of this duty, lawsuits have cited Major League Baseball’s recent policy requiring clubs to extend their netting all the way to the end of the dugouts, with some clubs opting to extend netting all the way to the foul poles. While some teams may choose to take additional precautions, the widely accepted Baseball Rule still holds, balancing the desire of some spectators to be “up close” to the action on the field and others to be protected from errant bats and balls. This case illustrates that the Baseball Rule remains one of the best ways that owners and operators can avoid liability for injuries from batted balls even when they do not provide screening for every seat in the ballpark.

Carla Varriale-Barker is a shareholder at Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, Ltd. and chair of the firm’s national Sports, Recreation and Entertainment Practice Group. 

Nathan J. Law is an associate attorney focusing his practice on a wide array of litigation matters. He focuses his practice on product liability, professional liability, and insurance defense claims. Nathan is also member of the firm’s Sports, Recreation and Entertainment Practice Group. Outside of the firm, Nathan coaches his law school’s Trial Advocacy and Alternate Dispute Resolution teams competing in the Tulane National Baseball Arbitration and Fordham National Basketball Negotiation competitions.

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