A “Sign Of The Times” At Yankee Stadium

In honor of the first full week of Major League Baseball in 2011, let’s take a look at one way excessive litigation in America is starting to have an impact on the national pastime.

Even though errant foul balls — and an occasional bat — have been flying into spectator areas for as long as baseball has been played, ball clubs haven’t had to be seriously concerned that courts would allow lawsuits by fans who have been injured by these highly prized souvenirs.

As recently as 2004, a Massachusetts appellate court sided with the Boston Red Sox and said that a judge was correct to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a fan who had been hit by a foul ball.  According to the court, the Red Sox “had no duty to warn the plaintiff of the obvious danger of a foul ball being hit into the stands.”  That was the first ruling by a Massachusetts appellate court involving a spectator hit by a ball in more than half a century.

However, in today’s increasingly litigious society, one never knows when a judge or jury will decide to slap a deep-pocketed defendant like a baseball club with a huge verdict.  And clubs are starting to take precautions.

In 2009, fans arriving at their seats in the new Yankee Stadium were greeted by a huge warning.  On the back of every seat, in every section in the stadium, the club had bolted a permanent plaque that warns “BE ALERT FOR BATS AND/OR BALLS.”

I know the warning is on every seat because when I was in the Big Apple last summer to tape a segment on John Stossel’s TV show about the Wacky Warning Label Contest, I decided to catch a Yankee game.  Since I wrote a book about warning labels, it was probably no surprise that one of the first things I noticed was that every single seat featured this prominent warning.

As I walked around the stadium, I found that the warnings were on seats everywhere.  They were even on seats in the outfield where the odds of a bat or ball landing were about the same as the odds of any pitcher throwing five perfect games this season.

To be fair, baseball fans have been seeing similar warnings on the back of their tickets for many years.  But a Major League Baseball club didn’t decide to add such a conspicuous warning to the seats in their stadium until two years ago.  I think it’s a sign of the times and predict we’ll see more warnings like this in ballparks in the years ahead.

Despite the lack of any million dollar verdicts like the one awarded to Stella Liebeck in her infamous lawsuit against McDonalds over spilled coffee, baseball clubs do get sued over foul balls.  The most common complaint from the plaintiff’s lawyer is that the club didn’t provide sufficient warnings.  We don’t hear about these lawsuits because they are usually settled or dismissed, but they can easily cost a club tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills, so there is a powerful incentive to warn.

Have you come across an obvious warning that caught your attention?  This June, we’ll be announcing the winners of the 14th annual Wacky Warning Label Contest now sponsored by the Center for America, and there is still time to enter.  To see how you can qualify to win the $1,000 grand prize, click here.

Grassroots Effort Aims At Keeping Public Land Open For Recreation

For millions of Americans, one of the rites of spring is dusting off their bike and going for a ride to celebrate the arrival of warm weather.   However, this year in Connecticut, bikers, hikers and many other outdoor enthusiasts are instead mobilizing a grassroots campaign to keep their public trails from being closed because of lawsuit fears.

Last year, a mountain biker who was injured while riding on a public trail near West Hartford sued the nonprofit municipal water authority that owned the land.  According to one report, the authority eventually got “soaked in a $2.9 million verdict for injuries [the] mountain biker suffered when she slammed headlong into a closed gate at the West Hartford reservoir.”

As usually happens in a case like this, the collateral damage quickly spread across the state.

A group of mountain bikers preparing new trails for a Livestrong charity project was forced to abruptly stop their work because of the lawsuit.  Next, citizens became worried that local governments around Connecticut would shut their trails to public use because of the fear of being sued.

This unfortunate situation is a classic example of how one lawsuit can inject fear into a community and create a ripple effect that begins to rob innocent people of activities they have enjoyed for generations.

On April 4, the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing on a bill that would that would provide local governments and quasi-municipal entities like the water authority with protection from personal injury lawsuits if they open their property to the public for free recreation.

The legislation has drawn support from thousands of citizens and a broad coalition of groups including the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.  The CFPA is a private, non-profit organization formed in 1895 to save the state’s forests from fires and timber harvesting.  Now, 116 years later, it must battle a much different kind of threat – litigation that is threatening to close public trails.  My, how times have changed.

The group’s efforts to generate support for the legislation recently came to our attention, and since it’s just the kind of citizen involvement we encourage on this blog and in our weekly radio commentaries, we’re happy to spread the word.  For more information about the legislation and the CFPA’s efforts, click here.

It’s unfortunate that bikers, hikers and others must spend their time on a problem like this when they should be outside enjoying the fresh air.  It also serves as a reminder that while the citizens of Connecticut are the ones who have to deal with the loss of recreational opportunities today, it could happen to any of us tomorrow.  In America, all it takes is one lawsuit.