Earlier this month, the Georgia Court of Appeals heard arguments in a personal injury case against the Atlanta Braves. The Court declined to pronounce the longstanding “baseball rule” as the standard of care owed to plaintiffs and sent the case back to the minors to proceed to trial. Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc. v. F.F. 2014 WL 3377159 (Ga. Ct. App. July 11, 2014).
The “baseball rule,” or “limited duty rule,” is a longstanding legal doctrine which protects stadium owners and operators from lawsuits resulting from foul ball-related injuries, so long as they provide sufficient netting behind home plate. While the baseball rule has not been expressly adopted in Georgia, the law provides that an adult sitting in an unprotected seat has assumed the risk and is thus barred from recovery. The curve ball is whether this defense is applicable to a minor.
In Atlanta National, a six-year-old girl was attending a Braves game with her father. The two were sitting behind the visitor’s dugout when an errant foul ball struck the girl, causing her to suffer a skull fracture and brain injuries. The girl and her family filed a lawsuit against the Braves, and others, alleging negligence. The Braves responded with a motion to dismiss, claiming that the stadium had met its limited duty to protect its fans, but the trial court denied the motion. Next, the Braves filed a motion seeking a declaration from the judge that the longstanding “baseball rule” defined the applicable standard of care owed to stadium attendees. The trial court denied the motion, but allowed the Braves to seek immediate appellate review.
The Georgia Court of Appeals heard arguments and decided that a declaratory judgment was “not appropriate at this stage of the proceedings” because “[t]he object of [a] declaratory judgment is to permit determination of a controversy before obligations are repudiated or rights are violated. A party seeking such a judgment ‘must establish that it is necessary to relieve himself of the risk of taking some future action that, without direction, would jeopardize his interests.’” However, in the Braves’ case, “the event giving rise to the [team’s] potential liability [had] already occurred.”
Atlanta National is not the end of the game, however, it is still a victory for the plaintiffs in that the appellate court declined to adopt the baseball rule at this juncture and allowed the case to proceed. The case has the potential to be a home run for the Plaintiffs, but the Court’s language indicates that the baseball rule may still be in play, providing “declaratory judgment is not the proper means by which to test their defense that their observation of the baseball rule, or some variant of it, satisfied their duty of care to plaintiffs.”