Chicago Court Asked To Decide If Fans Can Sue MLB For Injuries From Baseballs Entering The Stands

Articles & Publications

Sports Litigation Alert
August 27, 2020

Nathaniel French and Nathan Law recently published an article addressing whether or not fans can sue Major League Baseball for injuries from rogue baseballs in an article titled "Chicago Court Asked to Decide if Fans Can Sue MLB for Injuries From Baseballs Entering the Stands."

Please see below for the article, originally published in Sports Litigation Alert.

Chicago Court Asked To Decide If Fans Can Sue MLB For Injuries From Baseballs Entering The Stands

On August 27, 2018, spectator Laiah Zuniga (“Ms. Zuniga”) attended a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs (“Cubs”) and New York Mets at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field. She purchased a ticket for a seat in the “Club Box — Outfield” in the second row. In the fifth inning of the game, Ms. Zuniga was struck in the face by a foul ball off the bat of a Mets player and allegedly suffered significant injuries including facial fractures and nerve damage.

On April 28, 2020, Ms. Zuniga filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County, IL against Major League Baseball (“MLB”), claiming the sports league was negligent in its failure to mandate member teams, such as the Chicago Cubs, to provide netting to protect her and other fans and failing to properly warn of the dangers posed by batted balls leaving the field of play. Additionally, Ms. Zuniga alleges that MLB owed her a duty of reasonable care to protect her from the known risk of serious injury or death posed by baseballs being hit into the stands, and that MLB voluntarily undertook this duty.

In addition to her claims against MLB, Ms. Zuniga has named the Cubs as respondent in discovery in her complaint. The Illinois respondent in discovery statute, presently codified as 735 ILCS 5/2 402, provides that as long as a person or entity is named as a respondent in discovery within the statute of limitations period, a plaintiff then has an additional six months to obtain information which may indicate that the named person or entity should be converted to a defendant. Ms. Zuniga will have until late October to decide whether to make the Cubs a defendant in her present case.

To make a successful case against the Cubs, Ms. Zuniga will have to navigate around the Baseball Facility Liability Act. The Act, codified at 745 ILCS 38/49, limits liability for the owners and operators of baseball facilities in Illinois. The Act provides:

The owner or operator of a baseball facility shall not be liable for any injury to the person or property of any person as a result of that person being hit by a ball or bat unless: (1) the person is situated behind a screen, backstop, or similar device at a baseball facility and the screen, backstop, or similar device is defective (in a manner other than in width or height) because of the negligence of the owner or operator of the baseball facility; or (2) the injury is caused by willful and wanton conduct, in connection with the game of baseball, of the owner or operator or any baseball player, coach or manager employed by the owner or operator.

In Jasper v. Chicago Nat'l League Ball Club, Plaintiff James Jasper sued the owner of Wrigley Field and the Cubs after he was struck by a foul ball while attending a baseball game. Mr. Jasper included in his complaint a count seeking declaration that the Baseball Facility Liability Act was unconstitutional. The Circuit Court granted the owner’s motion to dismiss count seeking declaration of unconstitutionality, and denied other parts of complaint to the extent they were based on negligence.

Mr. Jasper appealed, to which the appellate court held that provisions of the Baseball Facility Liability Act, which protect the owner or operator of a baseball facility from liability from injuries sustained as a result of being hit by a foul ball, do not violate equal protection clauses of Federal and State Constitutions.

An interesting difference in this case opposed to other similar cases is that Ms. Zuniga is going after MLB and not the owner of the facility at which the incident occurred. Arguably, because the MLB does not own Wrigley Field, the Baseball Facility Liability Act will not apply. Ms. Zuniga will likely have to prove that the MLB owed her a duty and that there was a breach of this duty.

Based on her complaint, Ms. Zuniga will likely rely on studies commissioned by MLB on the benefits of extending protective netting at various MLB ballparks around the country to demonstrate MLB knew of the potential hazards to fans and chose not to issue warnings or protect the fans. MLB can be expected to argue it owed no duty to Ms. Zuniga since it neither owns nor controls Wrigley Field, and therefore is under no duty to warn spectators at any individual ballpark.

Additionally, MLB can point to the numerous warning signs posted at every ballpark and the audio announcements made warning fans to be aware of bats and balls entering the stands. This should be a case worth watching as it proceeds through discovery.