Last summer, Oakland A’s fan Gail Payne filed a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball in an effort to compel the league to provide more protective netting at all ballparks, including minor-league parks, seeking class-action treatment for her lawsuit and, among other remedies, “a rule requiring all existing major league and minor league indoor and outdoor ballparks to be retrofitted to extend protective netting from foul pole to foul pole [sic] by the beginning of the 2016-2017 [sic] MLB season.” In October, MLB responded by moving to dismiss the case in its entirety.
Little has changed in the case since last fall. Payne has amended her complaint to add two other named plaintiffs: Robert Gorman, a Charlotte Knights (White Sox AAA affiliate) season-ticket holder who alleges that he and his wife have been hit by foul balls at games and is the author of Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities of Players, Other Personnel and Spectators in Amateur and Professional Baseball, 1862-2007, and Stephanie Smith, a fan who alleges she was hit by a foul ball at a Dodgers game last summer. The Amended Complaint also names each MLB team as a defendant and adds a state-law claim targeting the liability-waiver provisions of MLB game tickets, as well as a simple personal-injury claim by Smith, individually, against the Dodgers. In addition, the revised pleading contains citations to more articles on baseball fan injuries; more (often graphic) photographs of injured fans; more allegations of fan injuries at games in 2015; quotations from current and former players and managers (including Detroit Tigers Justin Verlander, Nick Castellanos and Anthony Gose, former Atlanta Brave Chipper Jones, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez, and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon) calling for the expansion of safety netting or attesting to the dangers of sitting in unprotected areas; and an expanded section asserting that MLB failed in unspecified ways to utilize the technology at its disposal– i.e., Statcast– to protect fans, primarily citing Statcast’s ability to determine batted-ball speeds.
The defendants (with the initial exception of the Blue Jays, who later joined the motion once the plaintiffs complied with international service-of-process procedures) again moved to dismiss the case in its entirety, essentially on the same grounds on which they moved to dismiss the original Complaint.
The court was supposed to hold a hearing on the defendants’ motion to dismiss last week, but it has postponed that hearing until late March due to a scheduling conflict with the plaintiffs’ lead attorney’s family vacation plans. At a minimum, that delay offers you plenty of time to read Nathaniel Grow’s analysis of the possible application of the “Baseball Rule” in this case, and why that legal precedent strongly favors the position of MLB and its teams.
While the Payne case is stagnating (surely a relative description in the judicial context) in court, actual developments in safety netting expansion are occurring. When we last checked in on this story, there was some indication that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred would be discussing the issue at the then-upcoming owners’ meeting. Following that November 2015 meeting, Manfred said it was “absolutely clear” that changes in safety netting would be coming, but he declined to discuss specifics at that time.
Specifics still seem to be lacking, but MLB’s recommendation, issued in December, appears to be that teams provide safety netting for all seats within seventy feet of home plate, beginning with the upcoming season. A report on a minor-league team said to be complying with the new safety directive indicated that the team would extend netting “to the end of each dugout,” referring to the end farther from home plate. (For scale, another minor-league team, the West Michigan Whitecaps, is following suit, with the distance from the center of the backstop to the far end of a dugout reportedly constituting seventy-eight feet.) That’s what the Royals are doing as well, and that report, which states that the Phillies, Cubs, and Rays also planned to extend safety netting in response to the league’s recommendation, quoted a Royals’ executive, who said that Kansas City’s netting expansion “exceeds all of [the league’s] recommendations.” The Twins are doing the same thing, and the Rangers may be going even farther, with one report claiming that safety netting in Arlington will extend “beyond the team dugouts” (although another report has the netting extending only to the end of the dugouts).
All of the teams installing more nets in advance of the 2016 season look to be doing so to the same extent, lengthwise, but some variance remains with respect to the height of the nets, though no team yet is extending them so high as to offer protection to fans seated in upper decks — which is where Gorman, one of the new named plaintiffs in the Payne case, says he was seated when he alleges a foul ball hit him in the face.
The plaintiffs in the Payne case want the league to mandate netting expansion “from foul pole to foul pole” (presumably they actually mean two lines of nets extending outward from home plate to each foul pole, not across the outfield wall), so the new recommendation doesn’t provide them all of what they’re seeking in that regard, but it’s clear the league is trying to meet them somewhere in the middle, which is where most litigants end up.
The impetus for covering this story at this site was that the coming collision of the new safety regulations, driven at least indirectly by the Payne suit, and the interest of those fans who, unlike the Payne plaintiffs, oppose expanded netting because they believe it will significantly obstruct their view of the game (a number of whom expressed those views in the comments to our initial post on this subject) created a seemingly fruitful opportunity and incentive for innovation in safety netting technology that could increase safety while decreasing visual obstruction.
Preliminary inquiries to netting companies last year and reviews of the minimal technical specifics that made it into news stories on the subject largely were non-revelatory, but now, with expanded netting imminent at a number of MLB and MiLB parks, at least one team is taking steps to address both safety and sightline concerns through the type of netting they’re installing. From the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press report on the new nets at the Twins’ Target Field:
Despite the fact they were safely within industry guidelines set forth this winter, the Twins will replace the traditional netting behind home plate with knotless Dyneema material. They will use a thinner version of that same netting to span the remaining distance to the end of each dugout.
The dugout netting, which will be 7 feet high and require its own system of cables, is 1.2 millimeters thick as opposed to 1.8 mm behind the plate. It will be affixed to the front of the dugout roof, making it “less invasive to sightlines,” according to Hoy, and preventing fans in the front row from brushing against it.
C&H Baseball of Bradenton, Fla., the same company that installed the original netting at Target Field, will handle this project as well. Installation is scheduled for mid-March, well in advance of the Twins’ home opener on April 11, and the Twins say the cost is relatively nominal.
A 2016 C&H Baseball sales brochure describes Dyneema as an “Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene” fiber manufactured by a Dutch company of the same name, whose website describes the material as “the world’s strongest and lightest fiber.” Given C&H’s position in the industry– their customer list touts relationships with many MLB, MiLB, and major college teams, and a competitor has described them as “really the last word on the subject” of baseball netting– and the indication from the Twins organization that the cost of this newer netting is “relatively minimal,” it seems reasonable to expect that more teams will be moving to knotless Dyneema, or something similar, in the near future, in the hopes of satisfying both the entertainment and safety interests at stake.
(At the time this post was published, C&H Baseball had not responded to multiple requests from TechGraphs for comment.)
With Opening Day less than two months out, let us know what changes you’re seeing at your local ballparks, and if you’re reading and commenting on TechGraphs at the game (not not recommended), be sure to keep one eye on the action too.
(Header image via Elvert Barnes)
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