Jason Farmer: Idaho lawsuit threatens baseball and other sports

Jason Farmer

The last time I checked, when you go to a baseball, any baseball game, there is a chance that a batter could foul a ball off into the stands. That is why so many fans bring their gloves to a game, for the opportunity to try and catch one of those foul balls.

But now, that is in jeopardy.

Just a few days ago the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that a fan can sue the team owner if by some chance the fan is injured.

For years, baseball teams have put warnings on the back of their game tickets. These warnings have been a guide for the court system in protecting the teams. In the court system, it is known as the "baseball rule" and the courts have not heard cases like this because teams have supplied ticket holders with warnings.

The warning reads: "Holder assumes all risk and danger incidental to the sport of baseball and all warm-ups, practices and competitions associated with baseball, including specifically (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by thrown bats, fragments thereof, and thrown or batted balls, and agrees that none of the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, Major League Baseball Enterprises, Inc., Major League Baseball Properties, Inc., Major League Baseball Advanced Media, L.P., American and National League Clubs, the Major League Clubs, and their respective agents, players, officers, employees and owners shall be liable for injuries or the loss of personal property resulting from such causes."

Baseball is not the only sport to put such disclaimers on the back of its tickets. Basketball, football, hockey, NASCAR, and other sports also use the same type of warning on the back of its tickets.

How is it now that a random court in Idaho can suddenly change this?

What is baseball supposed to do, put up a chain link fence around the stadium infield?

Going to a baseball game with the family is a fun experience. During batting practice, balls are hit into the stands and kids scramble to get one. The same happens during the game for foul balls and home runs. I remember participating in "ball hawking" while growing up at Oakland Alameda County Coliseum.

Young fans try to get their favorite player to sign baseballs, cards, hats, posters and other memorabilia. Trying to get an autograph is my oldest boy's favorite activity before a baseball game. In between innings people who work for the team go around throwing/launching/shooting free T-shirts and team towels into the stands.

I spoke to a couple friends of mine who are lawyers in California. While both are unable to give legal advice in either Missouri or Idaho, they did have this to say:

"It's a shame that the legislature has decided not to shield stadium owners by implementing the 'baseball rule,'" the California lawyer and adamant baseball fan said. "Now, the courts have to look bad for refusing to overreach and implement a rule that is just plain common sense. This will allow people who have obviously assumed a risk to bring lawsuits and force nuisance settlements rather than engage in the costs of successful litigation showing the assumed risk. I am sorry the guy lost his eye. But the fact of the matter is injuries do happen at sporting events."

People always think it will never happen to them and they don't worry about the risks of anything they do. As much as I enjoy the sport, I have had this happen to me. When my oldest was 10 months old (he is now 13), I took him to a minor league game. The batter lost his grib on the bat and it came sailing into the seats. It came within inches of hitting my child in the head and causing serious damage. But, I did not yell, scream, and threaten a lawsuit over safety. No, instead I kept the bat and got the player to sign it to my son after the game. Today, that bat is hanging up in on display at our house.

I know and accept the risks of every game I attend and I accept those risks for my children as well.

Just look at Daytona last weekend. During the closing lap of the Nationwide race at Daytona, a wreck happened that sent a car flying up into the air. The car crashed into the protective fence separating the fans from the track. While the fence protected the majority of the fans, several fans were injured in the accident.

Two years ago a firefighter from Brownwood, Texas leaned over a railing at a game in Texas and fell to his death. But it is not just the fans that are at risk when they pay to go to these sporting events.

Last year an Oakland Athletics pitcher was struck in the head by a batted ball. Then in the playoffs, a Detroit Tigers pitcher had the same thing happen to him.

When a fan goes to a game, they are going to watch what happens and to also experience the atmosphere. Allowing fans to sue teams and owners because they were hurt when they were not paying attention will lead to teams making changes in that experience.

What if teams decide it is safer to not allow fans into the game until after batting practice is over? You will be taking away a chance for fans and players to interact.

"Truth be told, (California lawyer) is dead on," an Orange County lawyer and baseball devotee said. "You know the risks are inherent when you go to the game. As unfortunate is the whole incident is, there is no point adding a travesty to the tragedy, because if owners can be held liable they will have to either make every fan sign a liability waiver like bungee jumping, or take away the interactivity that makes baseball so great. It's a sad day when even our national pastime is a breeding ground for litigious non-sense."

What if teams have to put up chain link fences or netting around the stadium to prevent balls from being hit out? Now you have taken away one of the biggest thrills of the game, the home run.

Baseball has been around for over 100 years. It has had relatively few rule changes and is the longest and most stable sport in the United States. With the Idaho court allowing lawyers to bring lawsuits against teams for this kind of action, we are likely to see hundreds more frivolous lawsuits where greedy fans just want to make a quick dollar.