April 25, 2013
At a baseball stadium, what duty of care is owed to spectators with respect to errant balls? The Idaho Supreme Court recently addressed this issue in Rountree v. Boise Baseball, LLC, 296 P.3d 373 (Idaho 2013). The plaintiff in Rountree lost an eye as a result of being struck by a baseball while he was in Memorial Stadium's "Executive Club" section, which was located at the very end of the third-base line. This area was one of the stadium's only sections that was not covered by vertical netting.
The Rountree court noted that the precise duty owed by stadium owners and operators to spectators injured by foul balls was a matter of first impression in Idaho. The court recognized that other courts have addressed the issue, stating:
The majority of jurisdictions to consider the issue have limited this duty by adopting some variation of the Baseball Rule. See generally James L. Rigelhaupt, Jr., Liability to Spectator at Baseball Game Who Is Hit by Ball or Injured as Result of Other Hazards of Game, 91 A.L.R.3d 24 (1979 & Supp.2003); Quinn v. Recreation Park Ass'n, 3 Cal.2d 725, 46 P.2d 144 (1935); Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entm't, LLC, 124 Nev. 213, 180 P.3d 1172 (2008); Lawson, 901 P.2d 1013 (Utah 1995); Bellezzo v. State, 174 Ariz. 548, 851 P.2d 847 (Ariz.App.1992); Akins v. Glens Falls City Sch. Dist., 53 N.Y.2d 325, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644, 424 N.E.2d 531 (1981); Arnold v. City of Cedar Rapids, 443 N.W.2d 332 (Iowa 1989); Anderson v. Kansas City Baseball Club, 231 S.W.2d 170 (Mo.1950); Cincinnati Baseball Club Co. v. Eno, 112 Ohio St. 175, 147 N.E. 86 (1925).
Though many variations exist, the most common formulation of the Baseball Rule is that stadium owners and operators must provide "screened seats [ ] for as many [spectators] as may be reasonably expected to call for them on any ordinary occasion." Quinn, 46 P.2d at 146; see also Rigelhaupt, supra, 91 A.L.R.3d 24 § 3[a]. The rationale behind this is put bluntly by the Eno Court: "it is common knowledge that in baseball games hard balls are thrown and batted with great swiftness" and "they are liable to be thrown or batted outside the lines of the diamond." Eno, 147 N.E. at 87. The Eno Court therefore concluded that "due care on the part on the management does not require all of the spectators to be screened in; that the management performs its duty toward the spectators when it provides screened seats in the grand stand and gives spectators the opportunity of occupying them." Id.
Id. at 377-78 (footnote omitted).
The court acknowledged that it had the authority to establish or limit existing tort duties. However, it declined to do so in this case, concluding that Idaho's existing premises liability principles provide an adequate framework for analyzing a stadium owner's duty of care. Thus, a baseball fan at a stadium is an invitee, to whom the premises owner owes a duty to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition or to warn of hidden or concealed dangers.
The court concluded that it was not necessary to establish a special rule for baseball stadiums or that if a special rule were necessary, then the legislature would be better equipped to do research and formulate one. The court reasoned as follows:
Boise Baseball admits that at least for "seven seasons[, Mr. Rountree's] accident is the only time a spectator has suffered a 'major' injury because of a foul ball" at Memorial Stadium. The rarity of these incidents weighs against crafting a special rule. There is no history of accidents that we can look to, and draw from, to sensibly create a rule. Furthermore, Boise Baseball has not provided any broader statistical evidence regarding the prevalence of foul ball injuries in general, and—assuming they are so prevalent—how varying stadium designs might prevent them. Without this information, drawing lines as to where a stadium owner's duty begins, where netting should be placed, and so on, becomes guesswork. These kinds of questions are appropriate for the Legislature because it "has the resources for the research, study and proper formulation of broad public policy." Anstine v. Hawkins, 92 Idaho 561, 563, 447 P.2d 677, 679 (1968). Declining to adopt the Baseball Rule leaves policy formulation to the deliberative body that is better positioned to consider the pros and cons of the issue.
Id. at 379.
After declining to adopt the Baseball Rule, the court turned to the issue of assumption of risk. Specifically, the court decided whether primary implied assumption of risk is a viable defense in Idaho. Answering in the negative, the court first distinguished between primary and secondary assumption of risk. "Secondary" implies that assumption of risk is an affirmative defense to an established breach of duty and is a phase of contributory negligence. Id. at 380. "'Primary . . . assumption of risk' essentially means that the defendant was not negligent, because there was no breach, or no duty." Id. (emphasis omitted). Elaborating on prior Idaho case law, the court ruled that assumption of risk is a defense in Idaho only when a plaintiff expressly assumes the risk, either in writing or orally. The court stated:
Allowing assumption of risk as an absolute bar is inconsistent with our comparative negligence system, whether the risks are inherent in an activity, or not. Moreover, cases involving primary implied assumption of the risk are "readily handled" by comparative negligence principles; as in any case, fault will be assessed, and liability apportioned, based on the actions of the parties. Whether a party participated in something inherently dangerous will simply inform the comparison, rather than wholly preclude it. Here, whether watching baseball is inherently dangerous, and the degrees of fault to be apportioned to Rountree and Boise Baseball, are questions for the jury. Because comparative negligence can adroitly resolve these questions, there is no need for this Court to disturb its holding in Salinas [v. Vierstra, 107 Idaho 984, 695 P.2d 369 (1985)]: assumption of the risk—whether primary or secondary—shall not act as a defense.
Id. at 381.
The Rountree decision clarifies Idaho law as to the duty of care that is owed to fans at baseball games. More importantly, the case confirms that assumption of risk is not a defense in Idaho except when a plaintiff expressly assumes risks. Thus, the court's decision has broad implications for negligence cases generally.