Like professional sports organizations, youth athletic leagues cannot be
held liable for injuries to spectators in Pennsylvania, the state Superior Court decided in a ruling issued in late December.
Taking up the appeal of Tracy and John DeBrigida, an appellate panel affirmed a decision by a Lehigh County Common Pleas Court judge to grant summary judgment to Lehigh Valley Stealth Baseball Team and Lehigh Valley Baseball Academy in a lawsuit the couple initiated over injuries the wife claims she sustained by an errant baseball.
Tracy DeBrigida alleged in the couple’s lawsuit that she was struck on the right side of her face by a baseball that was thrown wide to the first baseman during a game the plaintiffs attended on July 11, 2009.
She was seated with her family on a blanket on the ground behind the first base line at the time of the incident.
There were apparently no bleachers for spectators to sit on during the game.
The DeBrigidas sued in late June 2011, asserting claims of premises liability against the defendants.
In the lawsuit, the couple claimed that the defendants failed to cordon off a spectator area so that those in attendance would be in the “line of fire,” according to the Superior Court ruling.
Other acts of negligence were also averred in the complaint.
Attorneys representing Lehigh Valley Stealth Baseball Team filed for summary judgment on Nov. 30, 2012, denying liability under the “no duty rule,” arguing that the rule “applies to situations where spectators or participants of baseball are injured by “inherent risks of the game.”
The defendant also claimed it owes no duty of care to warn, protect or insure against risks that are “common, frequent and expected” and “inherent” in an activity.
In their appeal, the plaintiffs sought to have the Superior Court overturn the “no duty rule” in instances where no ticket sales are involved and where spectators are on a field that has no protection, such as netting, to shield attendees from game play.
The trial court judge, in granting summary judgment to the defense, had written that in sports such as baseball, “a patron voluntarily participates in the sport as a spectator and knowingly exposes herself to the reasonable risks inherent and incident to the game.
“Foul balls, wild throws, and the odd bounce are all part of the attraction of the game,” the trial judge continued. “The risk of being the victim thereof is obvious and is common knowledge. In the observation of the risks, the spectator must exercise … her own reasonable care.”
The trial judge also noted that the plaintiffs failed to identify any liability experts or to produce expert reports.
The appeals judges ended up siding with the trial court, writing that the plaintiffs failed to establish that the purportedly “unique facts” of their case require evasion of the “no duty” rule.”
The alleged “unique facts” included the fact that the plaintiff had just arrived at the game, set up a blanket in an area amongst other spectators along the first base line, and was only there for a few minutes at the time she was struck in the face by the wild ball.
“Their arguments on appeal do not respond to the trial court’s reasoning that a player overthrowing a ball to first base, such that the ball goes off the field and possibly into the spectator area, is a common occurrence in the game of baseball,” the ruling states.
The appeals judges noted that the couple appeared to emphasize the fact that they had no choice but to sit too close to the first base line.
“We decline to hold that [the defendants] owed a duty to ensure the spectator area was situated a specified distance away from the field or had a duty to erect a screen or other protection,” they wrote.
The appellate panel also said they could not overrule the “no duty rule,” writing that “any … change in the law is beyond the mandate of this Court.”
Superior Court, they wrote, will continue to follow “controlling precedent as long as [a] decision has not been overturned by our Supreme Court.”
The non-precedential decision was written by Superior Court Senior Judge James J. Fitzgerald.
The other participating jurists were President Judge John T. Bender and Judge Anne E. Lazarus.