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.