MLB Scores Important Victory in Fan-Safety Lawsuit

In the aftermath of a series of high-profile fan injuries at major-league ballparks this past summer, a federal class-action lawsuit — Payne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball — was filed against all 30 Major League Baseball teams this past July. The suit sought to force all MLB franchises to implement additional safety mechanisms to help protect fans from foul balls and broken bats, asking the court in particular to order the league to ensure that foul-pole-to-foul-pole netting was installed in all 30 of its stadiums to protect fans all the way down the foul lines from the dangers of flying objects.

As I noted at the time the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiffs’ odds of winning the case appeared to be slim, as MLB had a number of potentially strong defenses to assert on its teams’ behalf. It was not particularly surprising, then, that MLB formally asked the court to dismiss the Payne lawsuit last November, relying on several of these arguments in the process.

MLB’s legal efforts were rewarded this past Friday when Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers — the California federal judge presiding over the case — ruled that 25 of the 30 MLB franchises should be dismissed from the Payne lawsuit. Moreover, because Judge Rogers’ opinion also suggested that the five remaining MLB teams may eventually be dismissed from the case as well, it appears MLB’s partial victory in the lawsuit could soon become a complete triumph in the not-too-distant future.

From the outset, one of the many hurdles that the Payne plaintiffs faced in their suit was the legal issue of jurisdiction. Generally speaking, a court can only force a defendant to defend itself in a lawsuit if the defendant has a sufficient connection to the state in which the court is located. Along these lines, courts usually require that a defendant either maintain a permanent physical presence in the state, or else engage in a sufficient level of business transactions in it, before the court will find that the defendant is subject to its jurisdiction.

This requirement presented a problem for the Payne plaintiffs because 25 of the 30 MLB teams named as defendants in the lawsuit reside outside the state of California, where the case was filed. Indeed, just last year a different judge in the same court ruled that 11 MLB franchises were not subject to jurisdiction in California in a lawsuit challenging baseball’s minor-league pay practices under the federal minimum-wage laws (the so-called Senne case).

If anything, the MLB teams’ lack-of-jurisdiction argument was even stronger in the Payne case than it was in the Senne suit. Unlike the minor-league-wage case, in which the fact that a number of non-California-based franchises maintained a minor-league affiliate or directly executed contracts with players in the state persuaded the court to find that it had jurisdiction over most MLB teams, these sorts of activities were not at all related to the plaintiffs’ fan-safety claims in the Payne lawsuit, and thus did not justify forcing the franchises to defend their activities in California court.

As a result, Judge Rogers ruled on Friday that her court lacked jurisdiction over 25 of the MLB teams in the Payne lawsuit. This means that all non-California-based franchises have officially been dismissed from the case.

Consequently, even if the plaintiffs were to prevail against the fivr remaining defendant-teams, the most they could hope to obtain would be a court order requiring MLB’s five California franchises to extend protective netting from foul-pole-to-foul-pole in each of their stadiums. Thus, Friday’s ruling dashes the Payne plaintiffs’ hopes of securing league-wide changes to the level of protection provided to fans.

Meanwhile, even though Judge Rogers did not formally dismiss the six California-based MLB clubs from the lawsuit on Friday, she did leave open the possibility of doing so at a later date. Specifically, MLB asserted that the court should dismiss these teams from the case because the plaintiffs lacked standing-to-sue, the legal principle requiring that a plaintiff must normally establish that they have incurred an actual physical or monetary injury before they may proceed with a lawsuit.

MLB has argued that none of the plaintiffs named in the Payne lawsuit possessed sufficient standing-to-sue because none of them could establish that they had actually been injured by a foul ball or broken bat at a major-league game and/or were likely to be hit by one in the future.

Judge Rogers deferred a final decision on this issue for the five remaining MLB teams in her ruling on Friday. In particular, she believed that she needed to have a better sense of the probability that someone seated in one of the plaintiffs’ normal seats would be hit by a ball or bat during the course of a given game or season.

To more accurately assess this risk, Judge Rogers ordered the parties to engage in limited discovery, giving the plaintiffs the opportunity to acquire the necessary information from MLB to more precisely estimate the chances that a fan would be struck by a bat or ball while seated in a particular seat. The plaintiffs must gather this data by July 8th, with the court then scheduled to take the issue up once again in late August.

Even with this additional information, however, it will likely be difficult for the plaintiffs to ultimately prevail on this issue, as courts typically require a plaintiff to show that a future injury is a near certainty in order for standing to exist. Indeed,  speculation regarding the mere possibility of future injury normally will not suffice.

Considering that most fans go an entire lifetime without ever coming close to catching a foul ball — let alone actually incurring an injury from a flying bat or ball — it will be difficult for the plaintiffs to show that a fan sitting in a specific seat or section of a stadium is especially likely to be hurt during the course of a given season.

So even though Friday’s ruling gives the Payne plaintiffs one last opportunity to save their case, the odds that they will successfully be able to do so would appear to be rather slim. As a result, it appears likely that MLB will successfully defeat the fan-safety lawsuit in its entirety by the end of the 2016 season.

We hoped you liked reading MLB Scores Important Victory in Fan-Safety Lawsuit by Nathaniel Grow!

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Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.

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This is like suing a restaurant to stop serving seafood because you have an allergy. If you’re worried, don’t go to the restaurant. Or, just go and order something else. How is this not common sense?

Weston Taylor
Weston Taylor

Did something bad happen to you? Surely someone else must be to blame! Call Larry H Parker to file that lawsuit and make those coveted millions of dollars everyone dreams of having!