Part I of this series discussed California’s recreational use statute in premises liability claims. Rather than dealing with injured sports participants, as the first article did, this part addresses spectator injuries when those injuries occur in sports and/or recreational facilities. This issue is far from settled; in fact, courts often find themselves taking into account the various types of activities that are played in a particular facility and using that as the basis for their holdings. Experts are invariably called upon to consult and testify regarding these factors.
When discussing spectator injuries from attending sports events, it is important to note that different jurisdictions have adopted different rules. These issues will be limited to the general applicable legal theories and doctrines. There are three types of injuries at sporting events that affect spectators: those resulting from the activity itself, those resulting from a third party (or other spectator), and those resulting from the structural integrity of a facility. In each case, the determination of liability may differ greatly. This article deals with the first type: injuries resulting from the play of a game at a sports facility.
Spectator injuries resulting from a sporting event, such as a spectator being accidentally struck by a ball at a baseball game, are among the most common types of spectator injuries. Several issues become dispositive in assessing liability. The first issue is the fan’s assumption of risk. The assumption of risk theory posits that spectators who attend sporting events are aware of certain risks inherent to particular sports; accordingly, a sports facility should not be held liable under such circumstances. Assumption of risk is nearly always invoked as a defense by sports facilities, but it is extremely fact-specific. In individual cases, expert witnesses in sporting events, safety and security, and sports injuries may be called upon to assess exactly how much risk is reasonable for a spectator to foresee and therefore assume. For example, many experts have argued that the risk of a fan being hit by a foul ball at a baseball game is so common as to negate any claims of premises liability. However, in the context of other sports, other opinions arise. One law review article deals expressly with four different types of sporting activities and attempts to assess exactly how much risk is reasonable for a spectator to assume, given the type of sporting activity and the nature of the injury. See Joshua E. Katsenburg, “A Three Dimensional Model of Stadium Owner Liability in Spectator Injury Cases,” Marquette Law Review, 2006. The experts seem to agree that the baseball scenario is the most clear-cut example of assumption of risk, while they tend to give more credibility to spectator injuries arising from, for example, being struck by a puck at a hockey game. Id. Moreover, even taking into account the expertise applied in the law review, there are different jurisdictional rules. With respect to baseball, there are specific rules regarding foul balls in certain states, and those rules differ greatly from state to state, leaving a large amount of room for the experts to pin down precisely when a spectator has assumed the risk of a sports injury.
Like any legal theory or rule, the assumption of risk doctrine has its exceptions. The key question that juries and judges must answer is whether the injuries sustained by a spectator were outside the normal play of the game. This is a highly specific question that, if answered in the affirmative, can completely vitiate the assumption of risk defense for stadium owners. One example of when a court has found that an injury occurred outside the normal play of a game was when a hockey puck was thrown into the stands and struck a fan after the clock and actual game play had stopped. It is often necessary to call upon sports and recreation experts to help determine what is an intrinsic part of game play, and to therefore carve out the exceptions to the assumption of risk doctrine.
Another legal doctrine that stadium owners have used as a defense pertains to the issue of liability releases. Nearly all tickets to sporting events have disclaimers and/or notices on them, declaring what the limitation of a sports arena’s liability is. In some instances, the simple act of purchasing a ticket has been considered to release a sports facility from any liability for a spectator injury. However, the courts are very divided on this, and many issues arise in the context of determining whether or not there has been a true liability release. These issues range from addressing how large or small the printed warnings or disclaimers were to whether the wording of the warnings was such that a reasonable person would understand that by buying a ticket to and attending a sporting event, that individual was forgoing the right to any legal remedy for a spectator injury. Expert witnesses play a vital role in assisting the fact-finder and establishing whether or not the disclaimers put a party on sufficient notice as to constitute a release of liability. Typical experts may range from contract experts, who can speak to the wording of a disclaimer and whether it formed a contractual agreement between a sports facility and ticket purchaser, to sports experts, who can address what the limits of a liability release should reasonably be, as a matter of law.
More than 15 million spectators attend sporting events in the United States every year, and hundreds are injured from accidents such as foul balls and hockey pucks going astray. Spectator injuries and stadium liability constitute an important component of premises liability, and the experts are of great use to attorneys who practice in these areas.
By: Kat S. Hatziavramidis, Attorney-at-Law