ARLINGTON, Texas -- By now everyone has seen the video of 39 year old firefighter Shannon Stone, who died after falling from the stands while reaching for a baseball tossed his way by All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton. Stone was a Texas Rangers fan from Brownwood, Texas, located 150 miles southwest of Arlington.
The Rangers closed their clubhouse to the media after their 6-0 victory over Oakland. The Rangers closed their clubhouse because they were probably being instructed by their lawyers and management how to respond to the media asking them questions about the event. Plenty of sports fans are wondering: Are the Texas Rangers, Major League Baseball, and/or Josh Hamilton legally responsible for the death of Stone?
The short answer? Maybe. The general standard to determine whether any of the three parties are at fault derives from a general negligence theory in Torts law applied specifically to sporting events. Normally the basic elements of negligence are a duty of care to another person, a breach of that duty of care, causation (actual and proximate) and damages. Negligence claims also have defenses. The most important elements to focus on here are duty of care, breach, and at least one defense, the assumption of risk (some courts systems merge assumption of risk with duty of care).
Specifically modified for sports, it would be unreasonable to expect a team to pay up every time someone got hit with a foul ball, as spectators come specifically to the game to catch a foul ball and want to become a part of the action. Fans bring gloves and sometime even nets to baseball stadiums. The history of the American legal system has modified traditional Tort law and changed the duty of care to a Limited Duty Rule. The Limited Duty Rule requires stadium owners to provide protected areas for spectators in the most dangerous section of the stand, for example, behind home plate in baseball (or close to the ice in hockey). Even with the Limited Duty of care, a baseball stadium still owe fans in unprotected areas the duty to install facilities to keep them safe.
Stone fell about 20 feet onto concrete in the second inning Thursday night, tumbling over the left-field railing after catching the ball and falling into an area out of sight from the field as the Rangers faced Oakland. The left-field wall is 14 feet high and Stone fell headfirst over the railing, which is a few feet higher. The incident is similar to an accident last July when Tyler Morris, another Texas Rangers fan and firefighter, fell about 30 feet from the second deck of seats down the right-field line while trying to catch a foul ball. Morris suffered a fractured skull and a sprained ankle.
Thursday's fall is the third by a fan over one of the railings. The first was April 11, 1994, after the Rangers' first home game in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Hollye Minter, a 28-year-old from Plano, Texas, posed for a photograph and fell from a railing in right field. She landed on empty seats and broke her arm, two ribs and several bones in her neck. Club officials said the railings were raised after that game from 30.5 inches to 46 inches in the upper and lower areas of the park.
Although taking measures to make a place safer are inadmissable evidence in court to prove Texas Rangers' facilities were inadequate enough to protect spectators, it could be shown the 14 foot left field wall with railing was not high enough to protect a fan from falling, thus meaning the Rangers would have breached the Limited Duty of Care they owed to Stone.
However, the American legal system has also protected sports teams with the Assumption of Risk Doctrine. While watching the game, either seated or standing in an unprotected viewing area, spectators must pay attention and look out for their own safety. Inherent in the game of baseball, balls will fly out into the stands. It is also standard for players to interact with fans and toss balls to them.
According to others seated near him, Stone was yelling at Hamilton for a foul ball that was hit by Conor Jackson and ricocheted into left field in the second inning. Hamilton flipped the ball toward the fan and the fan leaned over, caught it and toppled over in the gap between the railing and the back of the scoreboard on the left-field fence.
Most spectator cases have involved foul balls and other activities where a fan has only been engaged with an inadvertent ball coming in their direction. The unexpected event is Stone's case where a player (Hamilton) has tossed a ball to a fan and he has died. While in the stands, the presumption is fans are aware of the risks involved in viewing the game. In Stone's case however, the question would be whether the spectator was actually aware of the risks involved with catching a ball from a player on the field based on the railing nearby. Sometimes these events are clarified as a risk a spectator should assume, others are not, and still others are given to a jury to decide whether a reasonable spectator would assume such risk.
So is Josh Hamilton's liable? Josh Hamilton is an employee of the Rangers, and thus liability would transfer to the Texas Rangers under the respondeat superior doctrine, unless Josh acted outside the scope of his employment (told specifically not to toss ball in stands and this was effectively communicated to public, and Josh did anyway). Major League Baseball would potentially be liable because they are the association to which the Texas Rangers belong.
Bottom Line: If Stone's family were to bring a wrongful death suit on his behalf, the key factors for a jury to determine would be whether the Texas Rangers installed a high enough railing to protect him, and was it reasonable for Shannon Stone to appreciate the risks of catching a ball tossed into the stands by a player with a railing of a the particular height in Rangers Ballpark. Whether a case of such magnitude prevents teams from allowing their players to toss baseballs into the stands or modify stands to adjust for such activities is yet to be determined.
My prayers go out to the Stone family and here's hoping to an amicable close to an unexpected tragedy. Unfortunately most times, the legal system gets the last word.
Exavier B. Pope, Esq. is an entertainment and sports attorney and legal blogger for Chicago Now. All opinions expressed are those solely of Mr. Pope.
(c) 2011, Exavier Pope (portions of ESPN.com and AP were used for this article)
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