The Work

August 7, 2009 1:26 PM

Gardere Gets Astros Off in Batting Practice Injury Case

Posted by Zach Lowe

We at The Am Law Daily always assumed that when you buy a ticket to a baseball game, you implicitly (and, if you read the fine print on the ticket, explicitly) give up your right to sue the home team if a foul ball or tossed bat hits you. 

Turns out the law's not so simple, as the Albuquerque Isotopes--recently the short-lived home of slugger Manny Ramirez--found out Thursday, when a state appeals court ruled the parents of a four-year-old boy can sue the team for damages related to a batting practice incident. (Hat tip: How Appealing).

The boy and his family were attending a promotional picnic in an area behind left field while the Isotopes' opponents, a minor league affiliate of the Houston Astros, were taking batting practice. An Astros minor leaguer, Dave Matranga, hit a ball over the left-field wall that struck Emilio Crespin in the head, fracturing his skull and causing permanent brain damage.

The Crespins sued the Isotopes and the city of Albuquerque, arguing they were negligent in failing to protect the left-field stands with netting during the event. In a strange twist, they also sued the Astros and Matranga, claiming the visitors should have done more research on the stadium's dimensions, and that Matranga behaved recklessly in hitting home runs into the picnic area during a batting practice. 

Jeffrey Davis, a Gardere Wynne Sewell lawyer who has represented the Astros for 15 years, says his defense of Matranga was simple: "If he could hit home runs wherever he wanted, he wouldn't be in the minor leagues." 

A three-judge panel agreed and dismissed charges against Matranga and the Astros. Davis has defended the Astros in several personal injury cases related to batted balls and thrown bats, but he could only remember one other incident in which the Astros were the visiting team. "It's absurd," Davis says of the claim against the Astros.

The Isotopes, however, didn't fare as well. (They are represented by Butt Thornton & Baehr in Albuquerque). The three-judge panel ruled, 2-1, that the family can sue the team and the city, reversing a lower court ruling that had granted summary judgment to all defendants. 

The decision makes yet another chink in the formerly ironclad "baseball rule," which granted a powerful immunity to host teams in foul ball incidents--so long as those teams protected the ultra-dangerous seats behind home plate with netting, according to court records.

But courts in several states have chipped away at the rule in recent years. In the mid-1990s, for instance, an Illinois court ruled that a woman could sue the Chicago White Sox for failing to protect her from a foul ball that hit her in the head while she was sitting just beyond the edge of the protective netting in front of the home plate seats.

Baseball teams have claimed for years that increasing their exposure to personal injury suits even slightly could open a floodgate.

"They claim that the sky is falling and that all of the clubs are going to have place a net over the entire park, like a cocoon," says Jacbo Vigil, the Crespins' lawyer. "And that's just untrue."

The family is seeking unspecified damages.

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