The Case of the Fan in the Line of Fire

An unlucky onlooker is hit in the face by a wayward baseball. Can she sue and win?

By Vicki Glembocki
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine August 2014

bleeding baseballBY THE TIME Tracy DeBrigida arrived at the field, her 13-year-old son’s baseball game had already started. There were no bleachers and not a lot of open places to sit, so she laid out her blanket against a fence behind the first base line. The fields near Palmer Elementary School in Easton, Pennsylvania, were packed on this July 2009 morning. At least six games were already under way in the first round of a Little League tournament organized by the Lehigh Valley Stealth baseball team.

Just as Tracy arrived, the teams began warming up for the second inning, and she chatted with her husband, John, both then 39, who was first base coach. Suddenly, John heard a ball slam against something. He figured it had hit the fence—until he turned around and saw Tracy doubled over with blood covering her face. The shortstop had thrown wide to the first baseman, and the ball had struck Tracy on her right cheek. The impact broke her cheekbone, nose, and orbital bone, and it cracked her jaw.

Her recovery took months and included surgery to have titanium plates implanted in her cheek and behind her eye. Because Tracy is a stay-at-home mom, John had to take off from work at his construction company to help care for their three children. Although the tournament’s insurance paid Tracy’s medical expenses, John says, “I couldn’t even put a value on all those nights she spent crying and me losing so much income.

“I could never catch up,” he added. “I had to give up my company.”

Two years after the accident, on June 20, 2011, the DeBrigidas filed a suit against the Lehigh Valley Stealth baseball team, claiming in part that the organizers had failed to “cordon off a spectator area so that the spectators would not be in the ‘line of fire’ ” and had failed to “secure appropriate equipment that would block errant throws from striking spectators.”

Lehigh Valley Stealth’s attorneys responded with a motion to dismiss the case on summary judgment, arguing that their clients were not liable under the “no duty rule,” which “provides that a defendant owes no duty of care to warn, protect, or insure against risks which are ‘common, frequent, and expected’ and ‘inherent’ in an activity.”

Were tournament organizers negligent for not adequately protecting spectators during the baseball game? You be the judge.

THE VERDICT

On March 6, 2013, a Lehigh Valley judge threw out the case. “Foul balls, wild throws, and the odd bounce are all part of the game,” the judge ruled. The DeBrigidas appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, arguing that unlike at professional games, where a disclaimer is commonly displayed on the back of the ticket, their son’s tournament sold no tickets; therefore, there was no disclaimer. Moreover, in a deposition, the Stealth team’s president admitted that they never considered the safety of spectators on the first base side of the field. The judge wasn’t swayed: “We decline to hold that [the defendants] owed a duty to ensure the spectator area was situated a specified distance away from the field or to erect a protective screen.” On December 31, 2013, the case was dismissed again. More than four years after the incident, John DeBrigida says that at games, “sometimes my wife is so afraid she’s going to get hit that she sits in the car.”

Was justice served? Sound off in the comments below.

  • Your Comments

    • Coach PAt

      Actually, a baseball or other entertainment venue can be held liable but there has to be negligence. Those waivers on the back of pro baseball tickets are worhtless as to legality. They are there to make people think they cannot make a claim.

      This case seems to generally have been handled well, except that it may be that the claimant attorney did not make the appropriate case.

      First, stupidity is allowable when making a claim; however, in this case it appears two issues may not have been discussed. One, as a little league event, the organizers reasonably would expect visitors, including parents, so should have taken reasonable action to avoid expected causes of injury,ie. a backstop and 3rd/1st base line fences. These are common at every little league game I have ever seen. Is it common it that area? Second, the husband was a 1st base coach. He has a duty, as does the umpire crew, to check the field area for safety and proper lines. Did they? what about the bench coach for the team in the 1st base line dugout? I expect not, or they would have seen fans inside a fence behind 1st base. Everyone knows there are wild throws and fouls down the line.

      Accordingly, the verdict seems appropriate but not for the proper reason. It appears the judge needs some education, the little league group needs some education (particularly the coaches), whoever owns the field (city) needs some education. It appears the only people who acted appropriately were the insurers who paid the medical bills.

      For the record, I am a 30 yr youth coach and an insurance regulatory compliance consultant, formerly claims lit manager.

    • dylan freeman

      justice was not served they had nothing to warn people they should have won the case and they should be held responsible for there wrongs the field should have a safty cage around the diamond

    • Samantha

      Call me crazy. But if you’ve ever been to a baseball game, wouldn’t you know that balls come down the first base line? It is a shame that there wasn’t a bleacher, but she is the one who made the deciion to it in a dangerous place. Would she have wanted an official of the league to come running out to tell her so? Many little league baseball leagues are making due with not much money. Maybe they couldn’t afford bleachers. Shouldn’t we be thankful it was there for the kids at all?

    • AngelaC

      Judge’s decision was right on. You go to a baseball game, getting hit is a risk you take. They paid for her medical bills, that’s plenty. Who sues a little league team anyway??!!

    • Beckie Sorg

      Ms. DeBrigida should definitely discontinue attending baseball games. That’s just common sense – like keeping your eye on the ball ——-

    • alli

      I don’t feel like the woman deserves anything more than her medical expenses covered. It was her choice to be there. What I can’t believe is that she now sits in the car sometimes…that means she is still going to the games. Who is she going to watch…is she still letting her children play a game that can cause that much physical and emotional damage?? And those children are definitely in the line of fire!

    • Emily Baxter

      It is too bad that this happened; however, justice has definitely been served. You cannot hold a baseball team accountable for an injury when playing baseball. They paid her medical expenses… that should be more than enough.

      • Samantha

        I’m not sure they even owed her that. It was awfully generous of them.

        • Coach Pat

          It is most certainly in the insurance to cover related medical expenses regardless of liability. That part of the program. They pay the premium and get the benefits.

      • dylan freeman

        its not her fault she wasnt playing so they should be held responsible