When Baseball is a Bone Breaking vs. a Heart Breaking Experience, who is Responsible?

By: Stephen D. Richman, Senior Counsel-Kohrman, Jackson & Krantz, PLL

While a good deal of the heartbreak from our beloved Cleveland Indians just missing another World Series victory is behind us, some fans have had more than their hearts break as a result of an Indians baseball game.

In the recent case of Rawlins v. Cleveland Indians Baseball Co., Inc., 2015 Ohio 4587 (Cuyahoga County) the Eighth District Court of Appeals was faced with the question of whether the owner of property (the Cleveland Indians) was liable for injuries sustained by Keith Rawlins during an Indians baseball game.

Besides being “die hard Indians fans,” this article is in our real estate blog because it deals with the general issue of “premises liability”. Generally, in Ohio, all property owners/occupants are responsible for maintaining safe conditions for the people visiting their property and can be held liable for certain injuries on their property. The degree of responsibility (“duty of care”) depends on multiple factors, most notably who has entered on to the land, be it a social guest/invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser.  The duty of care might be as easy as posting a sign, and as costly as re-paving a parking lot to change its grade.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the general rule, and this holds true with regard to premises liability.
One such exception worthy of discussion is the one at issue in the Rawlins case, known as “the Baseball Rule.” The Baseball Rule is actually the name for the more recognizable defense to premises liability negligence claims (i.e., primary assumption of the risk) in sporting event situations. Under this doctrine, a plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in such activity unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries. Injury claims resulting from a foul ball at a baseball game, tripping on a root during a nature night hike, or from a roller skating collision are examples of negligence claims which could be effectively barred by the defense of assumption of the risk.
Are there exceptions to the exception? Are there specific circumstances caused by the property owner that call into question whether or not the injured party truly assumed the risk?
These were the basic issues presented to the Eighth District Court of Appeals in Rawlins.
The facts of the case are as follows: In July of 2012, Keith Rawlins bought tickets for himself and his daughter to the Indians game against Baltimore. It was a night game, with a fireworks show scheduled for after the game. The tickets Rawlins purchased were for seats located on the third-base side of the field in Section 171 and, therefore, were subject to closure for the post-game fireworks show. In his complaint, Rawlins alleged that at the top of the ninth inning, an usher ordered them to immediately vacate their seats. In a later deposition, however, Rawlins testified that an usher came to the end of the row where he and his daughter were seated and “just stood there with her arms folded” “or hands on her hips” and stared at him, seemingly delivering a message to move. Nevertheless, when Rawlins and his daughter left their seats at the top of the ninth inning, Mr. Rawlins was struck by a foul ball. Rawlins maintained that the accident occurred because they were ordered out of their seats due to the post-game fireworks show.
In November, 2013, Rawlins filed a negligence action against the Cleveland Indians as a result of injuries Rawlins sustained after he was hit by the foul ball. In November, 2014, the Cleveland Indians filed a motion for summary judgment (basically, this is a request for an early dismissal of an action based on law), contending that the action was barred by the defense of primary assumption of the risk. In January, 2015, the trial court granted the Cleveland Indians’ motion for summary judgment. Rawlins then appealed to the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals.
Rawlins argued that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk does not apply when there are attendant circumstances caused by the property owner that are not inherent to the game of baseball. Rawlins claimed that the order to move out of their seats constituted the attendant circumstances.
In arriving at its decision to overrule the trial court’s decision of summary judgment in favor of the Cleveland Indians, the court in Rawlins first analyzed cases that applied the general rule and supported the position of the Indians, namely, that “baseball is an inherently dangerous activity and that the spectator is in the best position to protect him or herself from injury at a baseball game.” According to the Rawlins court, “The consensus of … opinions is to the effect that it is common knowledge that in baseball games hard balls are thrown and batted with great swiftness, that they are liable to be thrown or batted outside the lines of the diamond, and that spectators in positions which may be reached by such balls assume the risk thereof. This theory is fortified by the fact that such spectators can watch the ball and can thus usually avoid being struck when a ball is directed toward them.”
The court in Rawlins, however, also analyzed a prior Supreme Court of Ohio decision (that it believed dispositive of the Rawlins case) that seemingly establishes an exception to the “primary assumption of the risk rule”. That case is Cincinnati Baseball Club Co. v. Eno, 112 Ohio St. 175, 147 N.E. 86 (1925). In Eno, the spectator was injured by a baseball during the intermission of a double-header that was hit by a player practicing near the unscreened portion of a stadium grandstand. The Ohio Supreme Court concluded that the facts in Eno presented a materially different situation from the general rule, and that there was a question of fact whether the stadium owner was responsible for allowing players to practice in close proximity to the grandstand during an intermission when the scheduled games were not being played.
Citing other Ohio Supreme Court decisions that followed Eno, the court in Rawlins also recognized that “In many situations, as in Eno, there will be attendant circumstances that raise questions of fact whether an injured party assumed the risk in a particular situation.”
The Cleveland Indians disagreed with Rawlins’s attendant circumstances theory. The ball club contended that fireworks shows are a common phenomenon of modern baseball, and introduced precedent in the form of a Second Appellate District case that held that even though a patron was distracted by a mascot when the patron was hit by a foul ball, mascots are part of, and inherent to baseball and accordingly, the patron still had a duty to be vigilant.
In overruling the trial court, the court in Rawlins agreed that there is an exception to the primary assumption of the risk doctrine (as applied in the Eno case), however, it held that whether or not the Indians did in fact order Mr. Rawlins from his seat, and whether or not the order to relocate because of the fireworks was an attendant circumstance not inherent to baseball were questions of fact that would need to be heard by the trial court.

In other words, based upon the holding in Rawlins, “under the assumption of the risk doctrine, the sponsor of a sporting event has a duty “‘not to increase the risk of harm over and above the inherent risk of the sport,’” and whether or not the risk of harm is so increased is a genuine issue of fact.

So what is the moral of this story? Simply remember that hot coffee is hot, a fish entrée is bound to include bones, and baseballs are bound to be flying overhead during a baseball game, which in the 21st century includes mascots, fireworks and hopefully more World Series games for the Cleveland Indians.

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