Upper-Deck Fan Safety Questioned in New MLB Lawsuit

Major League Baseball stadiums have been the site of a series of unfortunate accidents in recent years in which fans seated in the upper deck have toppled over the safety railing and fallen dozens of feet onto the concourse below. The most infamous of these incidents occurred in 2011, when Texas Rangers fan Shannon Stone fell to his death while reaching over the upper-deck guardrail to try to catch a ball tossed into the stands by Josh Hamilton.

Although not as highly publicized, Atlanta’s Turner Field has rather shockingly been the site of three such fatal falls in just the last eight years alone. Most recently, in August 2015, Gregory Murrey fell over a guardrail to his death after losing his balance when standing up from his second row, upper-deck seat.

In a new lawsuit filed on Tuesday, Murrey’s family seeks to hold the Braves legally accountable for his death, arguing that the team failed to take the basic precautions necessary to protect fans from injury in the upper deck. In particular, the suit contends that had the safety railing at Turner Field been installed at a more appropriate height, Murrey’s unnecessary death could have been avoided.

Interestingly, in addition to suing the Braves, the lawsuit also names MLB itself as a defendant in the case, claiming that the league has consistently failed to require its teams to install sufficient safety railing in the upper deck. As a result, Tuesday’s lawsuit may bring renewed awareness to a fan-safety issue that, at least in recent years, has taken a backseat to injuries resulting from foul balls or broken bats flying into the stands.

The Murrey family’s primary legal claim against the Braves and MLB is one of wrongful death, effectively alleging that the team and league negligently caused his demise. Along these lines, businesses in the United States generally owe their customers a legal duty of care, meaning that they must take reasonable measures to protect their customers from known dangers. The failure to take such measures can result in a finding of negligence, which, in turn, can serve as the basis for a verdict of wrongful death under Georgia law.

The key question in the Murrey’s case, then, is whether the Braves should have done more to protect their fans from injury, and more precisely, whether the failure to install higher safety rails constituted negligence, rendering the team liable for Murrey’s death.

In the Braves’ defense, the team will likely argue that it did in fact take sufficient measures to protect its fans. The team will likely note, for instance, that the guardrail that Murrey toppled over at Turner Field extended 30 inches above the ground, four inches more than the minimum required under the International Building Code, which specifies that safety rails in the upper deck of a stadium or arena may permissibly be as low as 26 inches in height (so long as the rail extends at least 42 inches from the ground at the base of any stairway). This lower guardrail height has traditionally been justified in entertainment facilities in order to avoid obstructing the view of patrons sitting in a balcony or upper deck.

Although Murrey’s suit effectively concedes that the safety railing at Turner Field meets the minimum code requirement, the case nevertheless contends that the Braves and MLB acted negligently by failing to take greater precautions to keep fans safe. Indeed, just because a business establishment satisfies the minimal requirements under the building code does not necessarily mean that it should not have taken greater steps to protect its customers from injury.

Along these lines, Murrey’s complaint includes computer-generated images suggesting that had Turner Field’s guardrail been installed at a consistent height of 42 inches along the entire upper deck, then the railing would have been sufficient to break Murrey’s fall and prevent his death.

In particular, the lawsuit contends that the Braves should have preemptively installed guardrails higher than those required under the building code in light of the frequency with which falls such as Murrey’s have occurred at MLB games in recent years. The complaint specifically highlights six other recent incidents in which fans attending MLB games have fallen over an upper-deck guardrail, resulting in severe injury or death. The Murreys believe that the frequency of these incidents shows that the Braves and MLB should have been aware that mere adherence to the minimum building code standard is clearly insufficient to protect baseball fans from injury.

The suit goes on to emphasize the fact that MLB teams actively sell alcoholic beverages to fans seated in the upper deck, increasing the risk of similar accidents. Moreover, because many of these fans will also often be exposed for prolonged periods of time to high temperatures and unobstructed sunlight, the suit contends that they are particularly susceptible to dehydration and disorientation, necessitating taller safety rails. Indeed, it does appear that incidents of this nature have disproportionately tended to occur in recent years in stadiums located in particularly warm regions of the country, such as Georgia and Texas.

Given these factors, the lawsuit contends that despite installing safety rails slightly above the minimum height required by the building code, the Braves’ and MLB’s failure to take greater precautions nevertheless constituted negligence, rendering the team and league legally accountable for Murrey’s death.

Whether these arguments will be enough to convince a judge or jury to hold the Braves and MLB liable remains to be seen, however. Indeed, there appears to be surprisingly little legal precedent considering the lengths to which baseball teams – or franchises in the other professional sports, for that matter – must go to prevent fans in the upper deck from falling over the guardrail. And in the relatively few lawsuits that have been filed, the parties have typically settled out of court.

Even if the Murrey family is successful in its lawsuit, however, it is worth noting that the case will not directly result in a substantial change in MLB policy on a league-wide basis. Unlike the fan-safety lawsuit filed against MLB last year concerning foul balls and flying bats – which sought to force the league to install additional safety netting in all 30 of its stadiums – the Murrey family’s lawsuit does not ask the court to order the Braves or MLB to change its policy regarding safety rail height. Instead, the suit merely seeks monetary compensation for the victim’s family.

That having been said, a significant judgment against the team or league would undoubtedly force other franchises to reevaluate the height of their guardrails, and thus could indirectly result in teams taking additional measures to protect their fans from similar falls. As a result, Tuesday’s suit is certainly one that bears watching for the baseball industry.


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
8 years ago

I have to think most franchises will quickly comply with whatever guard rail height shields them from liability, even if it obscures views for fans on the upper deck.

Unlike the extra netting added near the dugouts, no wealthy fans will be inconvenienced and poorer fans who sit in the upper deck or bleachers are already increasingly being treated like a disposable nuisance rather than valuable customers.

I’m not saying fan safety isn’t important (and it certainly sounds like Turner Field in particular has a problem with this) but I fear that, as often happens, the lawyers will force a solution that’s more about legal ass-covering than fan saftey at the expense of fan experience.

Pwn Shop
8 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

You have totally neglected the wealthier patrons onto which the poor specimens may fall!

8 years ago
Reply to  Pwn Shop

How inconsiderate of them!

Dick Monfort
8 years ago
Reply to  CJ03

Better netting would help.

8 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

I work as a stagehand for shows and work all the time at the different bay area sporting facilities. I almost always feel a little sketch when doing lighting on upper levels for shows and such, since as a tall guy the safety rails that I need to run out cable along, pulling and doing other things that can fuck with balance, and the rails are almost always about to my knee height which won’t do shit if I fall but flip me so I go down head first.