N.J. Supreme Court Pitches New Standard of Care for Ballpark Owners

September 23, 2005

Departing from the traditional rule that stadium owners have only a limited duty of care, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that a fan who was struck by a foul ball at a baseball game can sue the ballpark owner for negligence.

In Masonave v. The Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, decided on Sept. 13, the court weighed whether the operators of baseball stadiums owe a duty of care to their patrons to protect against harm from foul balls and decided the standard varies depending on where in the stadium the fan is at the time an injury occurs.

Plaintiff Louis Maisonave suffered a facial injury when a foul ball struck him in the eye as he stood buying refreshments from a vendor on the mezzanine at Riverfront Stadium, home of minor league baseball team The Newark Bears. The mezzanine is an open walking area exposed on one side to the baseball field.

Although netting protected the seating area behind home plate and extended for some distance down both base lines, the netting did not extend as far as the beverage cart that Maisonave was patronizing.
Maisonave was struck with a batted ball in the right eye, causing numerous fractures and other injuries.

Alleging negligence, Maisonave sued The Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, Inc. and the stadium’s catering service. The Bears moved for summary judgment. The trial judge granted the motion, finding that the Bears had not breached their duty of care.

In reaching that conclusion, the trial judge relied on Schneider v. American Hockey & Ice Skating Center, Inc., a 2001 decision which set forth a two-pronged duty of care for stadium owners and operators. Under Schneider, the operator must provide protected seats sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire them, and protection for the most dangerous sections of the stands—a limited duty that ordinarily may be satisfied by screened seats behind home plate in baseball and behind the goals in hockey. Here, the trial court reasoned that the provision of at least two vending carts close to home plate and behind the screening, which Maisonave could have utilized, established that the Bears had not breached their limited duty to him.

But the trial court decision was reversed on appeal when a panel found that the second component of Schneider, describing dangerous locations as home plate in baseball and the goals in hockey, was not intended to be exhaustive nor immutable. Instead, the panel determined that the measure of the duty is due care under all circumstances.

The Supreme Court held that an “owner or operator of a stadium must provide protected seating to those who would seek it on an ordinary basis and provide screening in the most dangerous sections of the stands.” The stands include the stairs providing access to the seats as well as the areas immediately adjacent to the stands dedicated solely to viewing the game. As for all other areas of a stadium, the court continued, “the proper standard of care is the business invitee rule, under which the owner or operator owes a duty of reasonable care to guard against any dangerous conditions on the property that he or she either knows about or should have discovered.”

The Supreme Court adopted the opinion in Schneider to the extent that it holds that owners and operators must offer sufficient protected seating to those who would seek it on an ordinary basis and provide screening in the most dangerous sections of the stands.

However, with respect to areas other than the stands, a different standard of care is appropriate, the court continued, in part because of transformations in the game of baseball that have enabled players to hit baseballs harder and farther. Additionally, fans “foreseeably and understandably let down their guard” when they are in other areas of the stadium. “In the areas outside of the stands, including concourses and mezzanines such as the one in this appeal, a commercial sports facility is no different than any other commercial establishment and courts do not hesitate to apply general negligence principles in virtually all other tort situations and the specialized business invitee rule to commercial enterprises. To apply the limited duty rule to the entire stadium would convert reasonable protection for owners to immunity by virtually eliminating their liability for foreseeable, preventable injuries to their patrons even when the fans are no longer engaged with the game.”

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