The Supreme Court recently reached a decision that was eagerly watched by both personal injury attorneys and sports lawyers around the country. On June 24, 2014, the Missouri Supreme Court reached a decision in the case of Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., No. SC93214. The facts of this very interesting case are as follows.
On September 8, 2009, John Coomer attended a Kansas City Royals baseball game. There was a very small crowd that day, due to rain. Coomer and his guest left their assigned seats and moved six rows from the visitor’s dugout as a result. The team mascot, Sluggerrr, climbed on top of the visitor’s dugout to begin the “Hotdog Launch,” a spirited feature of every Royals home game. Sluggerrr would load an air gun with hotdogs and then shoot the hotdogs from the roof of the visitor’s dugout to fans. He would sometimes toss the hot dogs himself. Mr. Coomer knew of the promotional event, as he attended 175 Royals games prior to this game. During the Hotdog Launch, Coomer looked away for a moment to examine the scoreboard and got hit in the face with a hot dog.
At first, Coomer did not realize he was injured. Then, two days later, he was having vision problems in his left eye. He discovered that his retina had detached and he had to undergo surgery.
Comer filed a lawsuit against the Royals organization, alleging that Sluggerrr failed to use ordinary care when throwing the hotdogs, and that the team failed to both train and supervise Sluggerrr in tossing the hotdogs. At the trial of the case, the judge instructed the jury that the Royals should not be found at fault if the jury believed that “the risk of suffering an injury by being struck by a hotdog thrown in a manner in which Sluggerrr threw the hotdog that plaintiff alleges struck him was a risk inherent in attending a game at Royals’ Stadium…..and that (Coomer) comprehended the actual risk…..and that (Coomer) intelligently accepted that risk.” Coomer objected to the judge giving this instruction to the jury, but the judge allowed the instruction. The jury found against Coomer and in favor of the Royals. In fact, the jury found Coomer 100% responsible for his own injuries. Coomer appealed to the Western District Court of Appeals, and after an unsuccessful appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court accepted transfer of the case.
On appeal, Coomer argued that it was up to the trial judge—not the jury---to decide whether getting hit in the eye by a hot dog is an inherent risk of attending a sporting event at Royals Stadium. The Supreme Court agreed and sent the case back to the trial court.
This case explores a doctrine known as “the assumption of risk.” The basis of the doctrine is that if a person voluntarily consents to accept the danger of a known and appreciated risk, that person cannot sue another person or corporation for failing to protect him or her from that known risk. This sounds simple, but in most cases, it is difficult to prove that a person voluntarily consented to a risk.
Over the years, the courts have developed something known as the “Baseball Rule,” which basically states:
Where a baseball game is being conducted under the customary and usual conditions prevailing in baseball parks, it is not negligence to fail to protect all seats in the park by wire netting; and that the special circumstances and specific negligence pleaded did not aid plaintiff or impose upon the defendant a duty to warn him against hazards which are necessarily incident to baseball and are perfectly obvious to a person in possession of his faculties.
Coomer, citing Anderson v. Kansas City Baseball Club, 231 S.W.2d 170, 172 (Mo. 1950). The reasoning behind this legal principle is that it is impossible for baseball players to play without occasionally sending balls and bats into the stands, and it is also impossible for the home team to protect all spectators from such risks without greatly altering the game of baseball.
So, the question for the Court becomes---is getting hit in the eye with a hotdog a risk that the home team is powerless to prevent without altering the game of baseball? The Missouri Supreme Court relied on a California case which held that the jury can hold a team liable for injuries if the mascot altered or increased the already inherent risk of injury at a baseball game.
The Court went on to say that “if Coomer was injured by a risk that is an inherent part of watching the Royals play baseball, the team had not duty to protect him and cannot be liable for his injuries. But, if Coomer’s injury resulted from a risk that is not an inherent part of watching baseball in person—or if the negligence of the Royals altered or increased one of these inherent risks and caused Coomer’s injury—the jury is entitled to hold the Royals liable for such negligence…..”
The Supreme Court held that this question is to be answered by the judge at trial, not the jury, as it is a question of law—not fact. And questions of law are not to be decided by juries. The reason for this is so that two people who have the exact same injury are not held to different standards by different juries. In other words, one jury cannot say that there is an inherent risk of getting hit in the eye with a hotdog at a Royals game and thus, reject one person’s claim, while another jury feels that it is not an inherent risk and accepts another person’s claim. As a result, the question of whether being injured by Sluggersss’ hotdog toss is an “inherent risk” of watching a game at Royals Stadium is not a question that should have been left to the jury and should have been decided by the court.
The Supreme Court of Missouri stated that Sluggersss’ hotdog toss was not an inherent part of the game of baseball. “Sluggerrr may make breaks in the game more fun, but Coomer and his 12,000 rain-soaked fellow spectators were not there to watch Sluggerrr toss hotdogs; they were there to watch the Royals play baseball. “ Because it is not an inherent part of the game, Sluggerrr (and the Royals) owed spectators a duty to conduct the Hotdog Launch with reasonable care. The jury should not have been asked to decide whether getting hit in the eye with a hotdog was an inherent risk of watching a Royals game, and Coomer will get a second chance to prove his case at the trial court.
So, the practical implications of the case seem to be this: If a person is injured due to an inherent risk of attending a baseball game (i.e. getting hit by a foul ball during the game), their claim may be barred. On the other hand, if a person is injured due to a risk that is not inherent in the game, they may be able to bring a claim for negligence against the baseball team. This is not a simple question to answer, as the answer is driven by the specific facts of the case. Therefore, if you suffer an injury due to attending a sporting event, you should consult a lawyer to determine whether you have a case.