In February 2013, the Idaho Supreme Court declined to apply what is informally called the “Baseball Rule”. Arising out of almost 150 years of litigation, the baseball rule, generally speaking, held that a team is not liable to spectators for injuries caused by batted or thrown balls. The rationale behind this decision is the idea that watching baseball is an inherently dangerous activity done at the spectator’s own risk. In various cases this rule has been applied to hockey and other stadium premises liability cases where the injury arises from the sporting activity itself. This is a slightly different, but related rule, to the principle that participants in sporting events consent to the usual contacts of the sport. The Idaho Supreme Court decided that the legislature, and not the courts, should decide whether immunity from liability should exist for sporting organizations. Because no immunity statute existed, the court permitted the lawsuit to proceed.
The universal application of this rule over time should cause concern in the sporting community whenever there is potential erosion of both this specific rule and other sports related exceptions to general legal liability. This week, the Indiana Supreme Court will consider whether to affirm an appellate court’s application of the Baseball Rule, and dismiss a spectator’s injury suit, or follow Idaho’s lead and permit the suit to go forward.
The potential shift in spectator liability law should serve as a reminder to all organizations that host sports competitions, that the best policy is one of accident prevention. Coupling sound design and seating policies with appropriate warnings and any other reasonable safeguards is sound practice, even if the Baseball Rule survives in your jurisdiction. We should always remember that common law rules are always subject to change and should not serve to excuse putting good risk management practices in place!
At Placek Consulting, we can help your organization assess and address premises risk.