Lots of things went right last year in the Yankees’ run to the American League Championship Series.
This wasn’t one of them.
The player you see here is Dustin Fowler, who was making his major-league debut for the Yankees. Fowler, in a haunting echo of Moonlight Graham, never got to bat in that game; he had been due up in the top half of the second. Fowler suffered an open rupture of his patellar tendon on the play and required emergency surgery.
How Fowler is expected to develop as a player in the wake of his injury is a worthy line of inquiry; however, it’s not the one I’ll pursue here. Rather, my interest is in the lawsuit that Fowler filed against the White Sox in the wake of his injury — a lawsuit that remains pending.
Fowler’s suit, on the surface, is pretty simple. Fowler has sued two parties — both Chicago White Sox, Ltd. (the limited partnership that owns the White Sox) and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (the Illinois government agency that actually owns Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox play). The complaint alleges two counts, one against each Defendant, and sounds in both simple negligence and a peculiar creation of Illinois law known as “willful and wanton conduct.” Essentially, Fowler alleges that, although the wall into which he crashed was padded, an electrical box located there wasn’t.
Here’s the relevant passage:
Let’s start with the obvious question: whither the electrical box? It’s hard to tell from the video. A still image from the above provides some sense, but it’s also easy enough not to notice.
In fact, the Chicago Tribune reported after the game that video seemed to show Fowler missing the exposed electrical box, which is there to provide wifi to fans. Based on that video, the Tribune reported in the same story that no changes would be made to the stadium.
The Tribune, however, appears to have been a bit premature in their reporting. Later image seemed to suggest Fowler did make contact with the electrical box. (You can see the best ones via Newsday here.) The fact that the box is so hard to see — it’s designed to blend in with the wall — is actually part of Fowler’s lawsuit.
So we know the box is there, and that — it appears, at least — Fowler’s knee did impact it. So that leads to the second question: are the White Sox and the ISFA legally responsible?
Last year, Nathaniel Grow took an excellent look at workers’ compensation for professional athletes. Like in many states, Illinois has a law which says that, for the most part, you can’t sue your employer for an injury you suffer on the job. That’s the reason workers’ compensation exists. In Fowler’s case, though, while he is suing for an injury that occurred on the job, he is not suing his employer. As a result, this isn’t a workers’ compensation issue, and Fowler’s negligence claim isn’t barred on that basis.
Michael McCann did a nice run-through of Fowler’s suit back when it was first filed, and I encourage you to read it in full. But negligence law in torts is a lot more complicated than it might seem, and since I’m an Illinois lawyer, I figured I might examine this from a more local perspective. To establish negligence, a plaintiff generally has to plead and prove all of the following:
- The existence of a legal duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff;
- The breach of that legal duty by the defendant;
- That the breach by the defendant caused an injury to the defendant; and
- That the injury is a real and cognizable harm.
Lawyers generally turn these elements into the shorthand of DBCH, which is short for duty, breach, causation, and harm. Illinois follows the traditional negligence standard, with those same four elements: “To state a cause of action for negligence, a plaintiff must plead the existence of a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty, an injury proximately caused by the breach, and damages.”
The tricky thing with negligence suits is twofold, though. First, you are basically punishing a defendant for what it did or didn’t do even though those actions weren’t intentional. That means that, every time you find for a plaintiff, you are necessarily saying the defendants have to undertake an obligation to protect people that otherwise wouldn’t exist. That, of course, has real social and economic costs, so courts tend to be wary of pushing the creation and application of legal duties too far. Second, because we’re talking about unintentional conduct here, there are a lot of defenses to negligence that don’t apply anywhere else in the law. These are things like contributory or comparative negligence (sometimes called comparative fault), assumption of the risk, and others which vary by state.
The first question, then, is whether the White Sox and ISFA owed a legal duty towards Fowler. In this case, there are two types of possible duties. (Actually, there are more, but we have limited space here.) There could be a “duty to warn.” That would mean anything from a sign down the right-field line saying “beware of box,” to actually telling Fowler about the box’s existence before the game, to just painting the box a bright shade of yellow so it stands out. On the other hand, there could be a “duty to protect” Fowler, with things like padding on the box or just the complete relocation of the box to somewhere outside the field of play.
Obviously, all of these points relate to the defendants, because the defendants are the ones with control over the box. That doesn’t always happen in negligence cases. What that means, though, is that a court will have to decide whether the law imposes a duty on ISFA and the White Sox either to warn players or protect them from hidden on-field hazards and — if so — how far that duty goes. Many states have accepted what’s called the “Learned Hand Rule” as the gold standard for whether to impose a duty on a defendant. Named for Judge Learned Hand (yes, that really was his name), the Learned Hand Rule uses what’s called “law and economics” to determine whether a duty should be imposed on a defendant. I personally think of the Learned Hand Rule as the “FanGraphs Method” of Negligence. Professor Doug Holden explains why:
This formula lists three factors:
1. Probability of harm (or likelihood of injury) and = P
2. Gravity of harm (or seriousness of injury) as weighed against = L (loss or liability)
3. Burden on defendant (or injury sacrificed) to take adequate precautions = B.
Therefore, if B < P x L, then you have unreasonable behavior. If you have unreasonable behavior, then there is a breach of duty.
This is a useful little algorithm for identifying breach of duty. In practice, however, judges don’t like to sit and calculate such variables like Learned Hand did. So somewhere along the line, the Learned Hand rule went from functioning as a mathematical calculation to serving as a guidepost to then becoming the rule that a party has a duty to all persons who could suffer a “reasonably foreseeable” harm as a result of the former’s actions.
Illinois follows that “reasonably foreseeable” standard. So, in this case, the question is whether it was reasonably foreseeable that a player like Fowler would injure himself on the electrical box. Given that much of the rest of the wall is padded, it’s clearly foreseeable that a player could be injured by colliding with an unpadded wall. By extension, it seems reasonably foreseeable that an unpadded box could also cause harm. Therefore a duty does exist to take adequate precaution. And theoretically, since the burden on the defendant is minimal — like spray-painting the box yellow or a few feet of padding — the Hand formula weighs in favor of Fowler, too.
Next is whether the ISFA and White Sox breached their legal duty to Fowler. To that point, we know they didn’t pad the box. We also have no reason to believe they warned Fowler, either. Of some relevance here perhaps is a doctrine in the law called “res ipsa loquitur.” Res ipsa loquitur basically means that if a defendant exercises exclusive control over an object — like an electrical box — and the object harms someone, the law presumes the defendant was negligent even in the absence of evidence of negligence. Here, I think there is that evidence of negligence, though: the existence of the padding elsewhere. Remember when we discussed protective netting that I explained the “voluntary undertaking doctrine”?
Here’s a refresher:
The Illinois Supreme Court, for example, explained in Nelson v. Union Wire Rope Corp. that, where a company voluntarily does something it wasn’t legally obligated to do, that company is liable for failing to do so reasonably. In some states (like Illinois, for instance), this is known as the voluntary undertaking doctrine.
If the ISFA and White Sox voluntarily undertook to protect fielders by padding the wall but didn’t pad the box, that’s negligence because they failed to complete the job reasonably.
Next are causation and harm. Did the box cause Fowler’s injuries? Well, the impact is what tore his knee open. I could talk about proximate cause and cause-in-fact, but we don’t really need to here. Because the injury was foreseeable and a direct result of an impact with the box, causation’s probably satisfied.
So what defenses do the ISFA and White Sox have? Their primary argument is probably going to be that they didn’t owe Fowler any duty. But in an Illinois court, that’s unlikely to hold water simply because Illinois courts have adopted the reasonable foreseeability standard. And they could argue that Fowler assumed the risk of being injured, but it’s hard to argue that running into things is part of baseball the way being hit by a pitch is. And they can’t argue that Fowler wasn’t injured, because even though he’s back and playing, his injury was very real, which in and of itself entitles him to damages under Illinois law.
So they tried something else. Shortly after Fowler filed his lawsuit, the ISFA and White Sox removed the case to federal court. The White Sox then moved to dismiss the case, arguing that it was preempted by the CBA. The White Sox invoked the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), a federal law stating (in Section 301) that federal courts, and federal law, govern all employment disputes where the rights of the parties have been collectively bargained. As the White Sox argue, “Plaintiff alleges that he was injured as a result of an incident that took place only because he was employed as a Major League Baseball Player pursuant to a highly regulated contractual employment relationship that specified all of the rights and duties of the respective parties – including with respect to Players health and safety.” Here, the White Sox point to Article XIII of the CBA, which governs players’ safety and health.
Here we return to the issue of “willful and wanton conduct” cited at the outset of this piece. In Illinois, under a case called Ziarko v. Soo Line Railroad, willful and wanton conduct represents something more severe than just negligence, but not so severe as intentional conduct. It’s akin to recklessness. And generally, in Illinois, you can’t disclaim willful and wanton conduct by contract. Moreover, Fowler argues, the CBA doesn’t actually cover situations like this, which means the CBA doesn’t preempt Fowler’s claims.
On that basis, Fowler wants the case sent back to state court.
This is one case where both sides appear to have strong arguments, and there’s ample case law going both ways. I tend to think Fowler has the better of the argument, but I don’t see this as being a clear-cut issue, particularly given the unusual set of facts. Many of the cases cited by both sides, like Stringer v. NFL, concerned situations where the player was injured by or on his own team’s facilities or lack of care. And even there, courts often split the proverbial baby, allowing some claims through and not others. The issue is currently being briefed, and Judge Gary Feinerman will rule sometime in June or July.
Meanwhile, Dustin Fowler hasn’t yet exhibited the form that made him a top prospect when he debuted last June. After a 138 wRC+ last year at Triple-A, he has just a 84 wRC+ for Oakland’s highest affiliate this year through 97 plate appearances. On the plus side, he’s already stolen five bases.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.