New Mexico Court Throws Out Baseball Immunity Rule

August 20, 2009

A fan struck by a baseball at a minor league ballpark is not barred from suing over the injury, a New Mexico court has ruled.

The New Mexico Court of Appeals declined to adopt the so-called “baseball rule” under which ballparks are shielded from most injury suits brought by spectators.

The case involved a four-year old boy whose skull was fractured when he was hit by a home run ball while eating in a picnic area of a minor league ball park during a batting practice.

The boy’s family sued the team, the player who hit the ball and the city. They argued against the baseball rule that the defendants had some responsibility for safety and that in this case were negligent in not providing safety netting for the picnc area and in not warning about the potential danger.

The team and the city argued that the player was only doing what he was supposed to do and that the ballpark had only a limited duty to protect spectators, an obligation it had fulfilled by putting up netting in other areas considered more dangerous. They cited other states’ cases that adequate screening of the most dangerous seats
immunizes stadium owners from liability regardless of how the injury occurs.

But the New Mexico court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Cynthia Fry, declined to adopt the baseball rule, calling it outdated because it ignores the ability of juries to decide such cases on the facts.

Fry wrote that “there is no compelling reason to immunize the owners/occupiers of baseball stadiums. Comparative negligence
principles allow the fact finder to take into account the risks that spectators voluntarily accept when they attend baseball games as well as the ability of stadium owners to guard against unreasonable risks that are not essential to the game itself. By contrast, the approach embodied by the baseball rule ‘excludes an entire class of plaintiffs[,] bestows a subsidy on sophisticated business enterprises[ and] represents the central tenets of a bygone era.'”

The court said that rejection of the baseball rule is consistent with New Mexico law, which has recently “moved forcefully towards a public policy that defines duty under a universal standard of ordinary care, a standard which holds all citizens accountable for the reasonableness of their actions” and away from judicially declared immunity. Juries should decide such cases, the court said.

“While the baseball rule may have made sense during the era of the all-or-nothing contributory negligence doctrine, it no longer does. Under our present tort system, we discern no public policy reason to justify bestowing immunity on the business of baseball,” Fry concluded.

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