An End-of-Summer MLB Legal Update

Like any multi-billion dollar business, Major League Baseball is consistently defending itself from at least a handful of different lawsuits at any given time. And while we at FanGraphs attempt to keep you, the loyal reader, appraised of any major happenings in these cases, throughout the year a number of less noteworthy developments occur in these suits that, while potentially significant, nevertheless do not warrant a standalone write-up of their own.

The purpose of this post is to update you on several such recent developments in two ongoing lawsuits against MLB, those challenging the league’s minor-league pay and fan-safety practices, respectively.

Minor-League Wage Litigation

Back in July, I discussed the significant victory that MLB secured in the litigation challenging its minor-league pay practices under federal and state minimum-wage law. Specifically, as I noted at the time, the court refused to certify the case as a class-action lawsuit due to several important differences between the work experiences of, and compensation received by, minor-league players.

Given the significant setback that this decision represented for the minor-league players — removing more than 2,000 players from the case — it appeared inevitable that the plaintiffs would seek to have the decision overturned on appeal. Rather than immediately pursue an appeal to a higher court, however, the plaintiffs have instead opted to take a second crack at convincing the trial court to approve the case for class-action status.

In early August, the plaintiffs filed a motion asking the court to reconsider its class-action decision, or, in the alternative, to give the minor leaguers a second chance to define new, substantially narrower classes of plaintiffs for the court’s approval. And despite MLB’s opposition, on August 19th the court issued an order refusing to reconsider its earlier decision, but nevertheless granting the players’ request for a second chance to seek class-action status on narrower grounds. The parties will be filing written briefs on this issue in the coming months, with a decision from the court likely to be issued sometime in December.

Considering that the court’s refusal to grant the players class-action status back in July severely undermined the plaintiffs’ potential leverage over MLB in the case, securing a second chance to expand the case beyond the 40 or so former minor leaguers currently named as plaintiffs in the case is a modest victory for the players. At the same time, however, it remains uncertain whether the plaintiffs will ultimately be able to convince the court to certify the case as a class action the second time around.

In July, the court refused to approve the plaintiff’s proposed classes due to important perceived differences between the potential plaintiffs. In particular, the court noted that players differed with respect to: (1) the types of work-related activities in which they engaged; (2) the amount of time they spent engaged in these activities; and (3) the amount they were compensated for these activities.

The plaintiffs may be able to overcome the last of these concerns by drafting their proposed classes in a manner that removes players receiving sizeable signing bonuses from the case (the court noted at one point in its July opinion, for instance, that Boston Red Sox prospect Yoan Moncada was a potential class-action plaintiff in the case, despite receiving a $31.5 million signing bonus). But tailoring the classes in such a way as to avoid the court’s first two concerns may prove to be a more difficult challenge for the plaintiffs.

Payne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball

Last summer, a class-action lawsuit was filed in California federal court against all 30 MLB franchises, asserting that the teams had unnecessarily endangered their fans by refusing to install sufficient safety netting in their stadiums. The plaintiffs’ hopes of forcing the league to mandate that all of its teams install foul-pole-to-foul-pole safety netting faced a number of potential legal hurdles, not the least of which was the fact that all but five of the 30 MLB franchises are located outside of California, and therefore did not appear to be subject to the California court’s jurisdiction. It was no surprise, then, that the court dismissed the 25 non-California-based teams from the lawsuit this past April.

In that same opinion, however, the court also indicated that it might be willing to dismiss the five remaining franchises from the case, as well, in the not-too-distant future. In particular, the court suggested that it was questionable whether the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit could establish that they possessed “standing to sue,” the legal principle requiring that a plaintiff must be able to establish that they have incurred an actual physical or monetary injury before proceeding with a lawsuit.

While it’s true that one of the three named plaintiffs in the case was previously hit by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium, because the suit simply seeks to force the MLB teams to modify their behavior on a going-forward basis, the court hoped to ascertain the odds that one of the plaintiffs would be hit by a foul ball or bat while attending a future MLB game in California. Along those lines, it ordered the parties to gather evidence to determine the “probability that a given individual, seated in plaintiffs’ specific sections at the two California stadiums in question, will be hit by a stray ball or bat in the course of a given game or season.”

Since April, MLB has produced more than 6,000 pages of documents containing relevant data, including injury reports and insurance claims. Because the league does not maintain official records regarding the specific number of foul balls that enter the stands, however, the plaintiffs have asserted that the available data is insufficient to establish the risk of being hit by a ball or bat during the course of a single game. Instead, they believe the fact that one of the plaintiffs has testified as to her fear of being hit by a flying object at a future game, while another has ceased attending games completely, is sufficient to establish their standing to sue.

Conversely, MLB argues that the odds that any of the plaintiffs would be injured while sitting in their preferred seats are far too remote to establish standing, which typically requires the demonstration of “imminent danger of injury.” According to MLB, for instance, the chances that a fan seated in Sections 211 and 215 of Oakland’s Coliseum — one of the plaintiff’s preferred sections — would be injured by a ball or bat during the course of a given game are only 0.0027%. Similarly, according to MLB’s data, only 0.004% of fans attending a game at Dodger Stadium in 2015 were struck by a ball or bat sufficiently “hard enough to warrant the offer of medical treatment.”

While the court has yet to formally rule on the matter, it did hold a hearing to consider the issue late last month. And despite the remote odds of being injured while attending a game, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers nevertheless reportedly appeared to be leaning towards allowing the plaintiffs to proceed with their case. In particular, Judge Rogers reportedly emphasized the fact that numerous major-league players are hesitant to allow their family members to sit in unprotected seats while attending a game, leading her to ask rhetorically, “Isn’t it time for a jury to decide if something is there?”

Of course, even if Judge Rogers ultimately concludes that the plaintiffs have sufficiently established their standing to sue in the case, such a victory for the plaintiffs would be somewhat limited, as it would only confirm that the plaintiffs had satisfied the minimum, preliminary requirements for moving forward with their suit. Thus, MLB would still be able to rely on a variety of other potential defenses in the case, including the so-called “Baseball Rule,” the legal principle which has traditionally held that fans attending professional baseball games assume the risk of being hit by a bat or ball, and therefore cannot sue the host team for any resulting injuries.

As a result, the plaintiffs still face an uphill battle in convincing the court to ultimately force the five California-based teams to install foul-pole-to-foul-pole safety netting in their stadiums. But it does appear that the plaintiffs may soon at least overcome the initial hurdle that stood in their way in the case.

Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics and the Yormark Family Director of the Sports Industry Workshop at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

Although I dislike the idea of extended netting at games, I can’t see how that inconvenience is enough to counter the risk of flung bats and batted balls.

We need to stop monkeying around and build the invisible plasma wall. It’s 2016, folks.

6 years ago

Realize that you would also be removing the opportunity to catch any foul balls in the lower deck.