Last Wednesday, Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. hit a foul ball. That is not an unusual occurrence at a baseball game, except that this particular foul ball hit a four-year-old girl in the stands. Almora, quite understandably, was visibly shaken.
Check this out! It was a SCARY & JARRING moment @MinuteMaidParks last night during #Cubs–#Astros game, when a 4 YO girl was hit by a foul ball! It happened when Cub's player, Albert Almora Jr. hit a foul line drive into the stands. Fortunately, she's OK. #khou11 #htownrush pic.twitter.com/xvrxwmV5c5
— Michelle Choi (@MichelleKHOU) May 30, 2019
Unsurprisingly, the incident ignited another round of debate over a topic we first discussed last year: protective netting at ballparks. Brian Johnson, a former major league catcher and current scout for the San Francisco Giants, told CNN’s Jeff Pearlman that the existence of seats without netting is like building cars without seat belts. But, as we discussed last year, the law doesn’t see it that way:
As explained in the Restatement [of Torts], there exists in the law a doctrine called “assumption of the risk.” In the context of baseball, that basically means that if you sit in an area without protective netting and you know it’s a possibility that a foul ball might come your way, you can’t sue the team for getting injured by that foul ball. As one court put it in a case called Edward C. v. City of Albuquerque, a fan ‘must exercise ordinary care to protect himself or herself from the inherent risk of being hit by a projectile’ — even if that projectile is traveling upwards of 100 mph.
There’s a really excellent write-up on this that you can read here. In short, however, this “baseball rule” represents the majority rule in the United States. If a foul ball comes your way at a ballpark, the law basically says you should have seen it coming. You’ll probably find language on your ticket saying you assume the risk of injury by foul ball, like the Yankees have on theirs.
What the law says, in essence, is that if you’re injured by a foul ball and there isn’t netting in front of your seat, it’s your fault. If you’re injured by a foul ball and there is netting, it becomes the team’s fault to the extent the netting didn’t suffice to block the foul ball. This seemingly counterintuitive rule, however, doesn’t make sense in an age of unprecedented fastball speeds and batted ball exit velocities, where fan injuries from foul balls are on the rise. The most commonly cited statistic, 1,750 batted ball injuries per season, would make these injuries more common than batters being hit by pitches.
Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer is also a proponent of expanded netting for this reason. In an interview with 670 The Score, he said:
“You’re not paying attention all the time. The balls are going faster and harder than ever. There’s just no way to react. Our fielders can barely react at times with a hard line drive. To expect a parent or a kid to react to a ball that flies into the stands, it’s not realistic. I think that shouldn’t be part of going to a game. Going to a game should be about spending time with the family and being entertaining and watching these great athletes. The idea of getting hurt should not be at all be a part of the equation.
When the ball is on a line close to the dugouts or beyond the dugouts, there’s just no time to react. I think we have to admit that and realize it. I’d always be in support of netting that area.”
And Hoyer is on to something here: as FanGraphs’ own Nathaniel Grow discussed last year, fans simply don’t have enough time to react to foul balls, especially because seats are closer to the field now than they’ve ever been before:
At 110 miles per hour, a spectator seated sixty feet from home plate would have just four-tenths of a second to react to a foul ball, giving even those fans paying extremely close attention to the action on the field virtually no chance of avoiding injury. Indeed, at four-tenths of a second the hypothetical fan described above would actually have less time to react than MLB batters have to avoid being hit by a 95 mile-per-hour fastball. If elite professional athletes of this caliber are often unable to get out of the way of such a fast-moving projectile, it should come as no surprise that fan injuries from foul balls have become even more common occurrences than batters being hit by a pitch in recent years.
Now, to be fair, before the 2018 major league season, Major League Baseball issued new netting guidelines, specifically including that netting should extend at least as far as each team’s dugout. However, as USA Today noted last week, netting lengths still vary by franchise, with the Baltimore Orioles providing the most protection (three sections past the dugouts in the outfield).
In light of last week’s incident, there groundswell has been a groundswell of support for netting that extends down the entirety of each foul line – from behind home plate to the foul pole in each corner – as it does in professional leagues in Japan and Korea. But this idea isn’t new. The MLBPA has been attempting to include this as a provision in collective bargaining agreements since 2007.
I asked our resident KBO and NPB connoisseur, Sung Min Kim, about netting in the KBO. He told me that, as far as the KBO is concerned, the netting was a problem because fans used to climb it in an effort to get on the field:
“At the Jamsil Stadium [where the LG Twins and Doosan Bears play], they lowered the net from eight meters to three meters on the infield to improve the sightline, and they instituted facility workers to blow whistles every time a batted ball comes into the stands, but this is a long time ago. They still do have whistle blowers in ballgames, but I’m not sure if they have the same height. I actually doubt it. I think it’s entirely possible that they made the nets taller again. The ones I’ve seen look most definitely taller than three meters.”
In NPB, the extensive netting is not a result of league mandate, but of a court decision after a woman injured by a foul ball sued the Nippon Ham Fighters:
Japanese baseball officials appear headed for the trenches after a court’s unprecedented decision to force a team to compensate a female spectator who was blinded in one eye when she was hit by a line drive at a ballgame. The decision handed down by the Sapporo District Court on March 26, the day before the regular season got under way, ordered the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters professional baseball team, Sapporo Dome Co. and the city of Sapporo to pay the woman, who has asked to remain nameless, about ¥41.9 million (about $350,000). Although there have been similar incidents in the past of fans being hurt by foul balls and suing teams, this time an example is being made of the Hokkaido-based club with ramifications that are causing baseball clubs to take note, in what most of them view as a critical indictment of their sport.
“It was a tragic accident but I was shocked when I saw that decision,” Chiba Lotte Marines president Shinya Yamamuro recently told Kyodo News. In the ruling, Presiding Judge Yasuhiro Hasegawa noted that the area above the almost 3-meter tall fence for the infield stands was not furnished with protective netting.
The key aspect of the court’s ruling was that “simply warning spectators to be careful of foul balls by making public service announcements or on the large screen panels is not enough.” This was significant, because Japanese law had previously accepted a variation of the same “baseball rule” that American courts had enforced. Contractually, Japanese courts had believed, fans assumed the risk of injury by attending the game. The decision against the Nippon Ham Fighters changed the calculus for teams, with one Japanese baseball official sarcastically telling the Japan Times that “[I]f we continue to have court orders for compensation of large sums like this we’ll end up having to cover up stadiums to their ceilings in bulletproof glass.” That didn’t happen, but now every NPB stadium has netting extending all the way to each foul pole. Ironically, however, NPB teams are increasingly offering “exciting seats” without that netting, where spectators are encouraged, but not required, to wear helmets.
Meanwhile, minor league games continue to have netting largely limited to behind the plate. On Saturday, a young child was seriously injured by a foul ball launched into the stands during an Indianapolis Indians game. The boy was taken to the hospital, and no updates were available on his condition. The baseball rule, however, remains the law of the land even as courts have declined to follow it in instances, like those involving t-shirt cannons.
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.