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?
Noma Bar for Reader's DigestBY 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.
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.”
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