Montana Supreme Court Rules in Aluminum Baseball Bat Case

By | August 1, 2011

The Montana Supreme Court has awarded $850,000 to the family of a 18-year-old pitcher who was killed by a baseball hit off an aluminum bat.

The aluminum baseball bat was not designed defectively, but the manufacturer should have had warnings about the enhanced risks associated with using it, according to this ruling upholding a lower court decision rendered back in October 2009.

The ruling comes on the heels of a number of well-publicized incidents where pitchers have been hurt by balls hit by aluminum bats — balls apparently hit too hard for them to dodge .

However, the decision is unlikely to have much impact on sports insurance and baseball, according to one sport insurance agent who is intimately familiar with baseball and aluminum bats.

“I don’t see this case having a huge impact on bat manufacturers and distributors, and certainly not on sports organizations that use the bats,” said John Sadler, president of Sadler & Co., Columbia, S.C., which specializes in insuring sports organizations.

The facts of the case were these: on July 25, 2003, Brandon Patch, an 18-year-old left-hander, of the American Legion Miles City Mavericks, was pitching to a member of the Helena Senators, in a game in Helena. In the fifth inning he faced a batter who was using a Louisville Slugger model CB-13 aluminum bat.

Patch pitched a ball and the batter hit it, hard, right back at him. According to scientific evidence that was presented in the case, a baseball pitcher needs 0.4 seconds to react to a batted ball. Analysis of the sounds on a videotape of the Patch game suggested he had 0.376 seconds to move.

The ball hit him in the head, so hard that some observers estimated it flew up 50 feet in the air, and landed behind first base. Four Hours later, he was dead.

The Miles City Mavericks have never played in a game with aluminum bats since. And Brandon Patch’s parents, Duane and Deb, became part of a nationwide effort to see aluminum bats banned. They petitioned the Montana Legislature for a law, an effort that failed, and they sued Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the parent company of Louisville Slugger, the maker of the bat.

In the case, the Patch’s lawyers argued that the metal bat was unreasonably dangerous and that Hillerich & Bradsby failed to adequately warn players of the danger. The jury’s decision, ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court, was that the bat was not designed defectively, but was in a defective condition due to the company’s failure to warn of the enhanced risks associated with its use.

Hillerich & Bradsby’s lawyers had argued that the only meaningful place the company could have put the warning was on the bat itself and that a warning on the bat would only effectively warn the batter, no one else. The courts rejected that as a defense. They said the company could have given oral warnings, or issued press releases, or inserted warnings in advertisements.

Some critics, however, say that would only have increased the allure.

In general, a ball batted off of a standard aluminum bat is thought to be able to travel 20 miles per hour faster than a ball off of a wooden bat. The bats are hollow so there is a trampoline effect on the ball, and the bats also have a larger sweet spot. When college baseball went to metal bats, the number of home runs hit increased by a bit less than 40 percent.

Whether that actually increases the number of serious injuries is still up for debate.

When a player gets hurt in an incident with a metal bat, it tends to draw headlines and parent outcry. In 2010, for example, 16-year-old Gunnar Sandberg, a pitcher in Marin County (Calif.) Athletic League, hit in the head by a ball he pitched and had to be placed in a medical coma. The incident made headlines throughout Northern California, prompted consideration of legislation, and spurred the high-school league to ban metal bats for the rest of the year. (Sandberg has since recovered.)

Studies of whether aluminum bats are more dangerous, however, have not shown that they are. Skeptics point out that there are injuries from balls off wooden bats as well, and sometimes argue that wooden bats might be more dangerous because they can break and send shards of wood out into the field.

In 2002, the Consumer Product Safety Commission looked at deaths from batted balls in baseball and softball between 1991 and 2001. It found that out of 17 deaths, eight had been in incidents with metal bats, but two involved wooden bats. The type of bat in the other seven cases was not known. The CPSC also noted that during the same period of time 18 players were killed by thrown balls.

A study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, at the University of North Carolina, compared three years of college baseball, in which aluminum bats are used, to three years of summer league baseball, in which college players use wooden bats, and found that there actually was a slightly higher rate of injury when the wooden bats were used.

In the meantime, some baseball organizations have gone to a new standard of what constitutes a legal bat. Up until recently, the performance of a bat was measured by the ball exit speed ratio, known by the acronym BESR. But it is now thought that the BESR measurements are too inaccurate. So instead, baseball is measuring the batted ball coefficient of restitution, or BBCOR. Because it is more accurate, it allows a bat maker to dampen down the performance, and that is what they are being called on to do. BBCOR bats are being designed to be like a wood bat, with a 10 percent to 15 percent decrease in performance.

This year, the National Collegiate Athletic (NCAA) began to require the BBCOR standard in bats used in college baseball, and next year the National Federation of State High School Federations will do the same.

This year, the NCAA reported, the number of home runs hit in college baseball decreased by about 35 percent from the previous year. That is almost exactly how much they increased when aluminum bats were introduced.

Sadler said it likely that most leagues for older boys and men will adopt the BBCOR standard, but that for leagues for children under age 12 the situation might be different. Studies are underway.

“You need to be careful to separate politics and media buzz from science,” he said. “It’s easy to have a knee jerk reaction to specific incidents, but the only basis for making a decision to ban non-wood bats would be based on the results of the scientific studies in the lab and in the field that are currently taking place.”

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