The Baseball Rule: Century Old Rule Modernized

The Baseball Rule

For nearly a century the “Baseball Rule” protected baseball teams from lawsuits for injuries sustained by fans from bats or balls leaving the field of play. Famed 1920s Judge Cardozo wrote “to a willing person, injury is not done.” The Baseball Rule embodies a legal rule known as the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. This means that a person accepts all of the risks inherent in any activity they engage in. Since foul balls and broken bats are inherent in the game of baseball, spectators accept the risk of injury resulting from balls or bats entering the spectator area.

To a willing person, injury is not done.

Judge Cardozo, Murphy v. Steeplechase (1929) 250 N.Y. 479, 482-83.

Therefore, courts throughout the country prevent lawsuits from spectators injured by foul balls. The only real exception to the Baseball Rule exists in circumstances where a defendant increases the risk of injury inherent in the sport.

Prior Application of the Baseball Rule

The Case of John Lowe & Racho Cucamonga Quakes

In 1997, John Lowe attended a minor league baseball game to watch the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. The team features its mascot, Tremor, at all home games. Tremor is a seven-foot-tall dinosaur with a long tail at the back. During the game, Tremor entertains the spectators by performing over-the-top antics. During the game as the pitcher prepared to throw his next pitch, Tremor’s tail touched Mr. Lowe. Mr. Lowe turned his attention to Tremor at the same time the the batters bat made contact with the ball. By the time Mr. Lowe returned his attention to the field of play, a foul ball struck Mr. Lowe causing serious injuries.

Mr. Lowe lost at the trial court level, then appealed. In the case Lowe v. California League of Prof. Baseball, the court of appeals allowed the case to proceed. It agreed that foul balls are a risk inherent to baseball. Is also agreed that eliminating foul balls would fundamentally change the game of baseball. But, the court allowed the lawsuit to proceed because the mascot’s antics during active play increased the risk of injury. Moreover, the court reasoned that a baseball mascot is not necessary to the game of baseball. Therefore, the Court allowed the lawsuit.

The Case of Shirley Neinstein & Los Angeles Dodgers

Shirley Neinstein described herself as an “ardent Dodger rooter.” She and her husband attended multiple games in the past. They generally sat in the same seats behind first base. So, she knew that this area contained no protective netting. In 1986, Ms. Nienstein attended a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game and sat in the same seats behind first base. During the course of the game, a foul ball struck her, causing injury. She sued.

The trial court applied the Baseball Rule and prevented the lawsuit from proceeding. So, Ms. Nienstein appealed. In a case called Nienstein v. Los Angeles Dodgers, the court of appeal affirmed the trial court. Ms. Nienstein argued that the Dodgers had a duty to protect spectators from foul balls. But, the court of appeal disagreed.

The court of appeal noted that baseball players often reach into the stands to catch foul balls. Therefore, it reasoned that placing protective netting between the spectators and the field of play would fundamentally change the game of baseball. So, it did not allow the lawsuit.

The Case of Summer J. and the New Baseball Rule

On August 17, 2014, a 12-year-old-girl named “Summer J.” (her name is not disclosed because she is a minor) attended the U.S. National Team trials at Cal State Long Beach. She sat in the spectator bleachers. The school’s stadium provided enhanced Wi-Fi connection to encourage the use of mobile devices. The school also adorned the stadium with brightly colored advertisements on the outfield fences. During the baseball trials, Summer J. became “momentarily distracted.” At that moment, a foul ball hit her in the head causing severe injuries. The area where she sat had no protective screen or netting.

The girl’s family sued. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit based on the Baseball Rule. The trial court reasoned that the “lack of protective netting is not an increase of inherent risks. Placing such netting might decrease in inherent risks of being hit by a foul ball, but that is not the inquiry.” The girl’s family appealed.

Court of Appeals Changes the Baseball Rule?

On February 18, 2020, the California Court of Appeals issued its opinion in the case of Summer v. U.S. Baseball Federation. The appellate court agreed that foul balls are part of baseball. It also agreed that US Baseball had a duty to not increase the risk of injury inherent in the sport of baseball. But, the court of appeals stated that US Baseball misperceived the nature of its duty towards spectators. It ruled that US Baseball owed a duty to “take reasonable measures that would increase safety and minimize those risks without altering the nature of the game.”

This is a fundamental departure from “Baseball Rule” jurisprudence. Moreover, it directly contradicts the court of appeal’s decision in Nienstein v. Los Angeles Dodgers. So what changed? Did the court of appeal change, or did baseball change?

The court of appeal believes that baseball has fundamentally changed. It is not necessarily wrong. Nienstein v. Los Angeles Dodgers reasoned that placing protective netting between the field of play and spectators would change the nature of the game, since players could not extend into the stands to catch foul balls.

But the court of appeal in this case noted that following Major League Baseball’s 2019 winter meetings, Commissioner Manfred announced that all 30 major league teams will expand the protective netting in their stadiums “substantially beyond the end of the dugout.” Commissioner Manfred also announced that seven or eight stadiums will extend the protective netting all the way to the foul poles. Therefore, at least in the eyes of Major League Baseball, the ability of baseball players to reach into the stands to field foul balls in not fundamental to the game.

Accordingly, the court of appeals analysis in Nienstein v. Los Angeles Dodgers is no longer relevant.

What Does This Mean?

This case means that Summer J.’s lawsuit may proceed forward. It also mean the baseball stadiums may face increased liability if they fail to extend the protective netting all the way to the foul poles. Finally, it also signals that brightly colored advertisements and Wi-Fi offerings may increase the risk of injury to spectators because they distract from the risks of objects entering the spectator area.

If you want to read the court of appeals decision, click HERE.

To read other opinions of the court of appeals and California Supreme Court, click HERE.

James Long, JD

James earned his Juris Doctorate in 2010 and was later appointed to serve as an Expert for the Vatican at the United Nations. James is the former Managing Editor of the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy, and an Associate Editor of the St. Thomas Law Journal. James is currently a business lawyer, litigator, and estate planner with nine years' experience helping families and businesses succeed.

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