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As some professional sports return to action, and other contemplate their path towards that direction, one question on this baseball fans’ mind is, “How (and when) will fans be able to return to stadiums?”

In wondering what might be required in order allow fans back into stadiums, I thought of sports-related ruling by the Court of Appeals that was entered earlier this year before the pandemic began to exact its toll on professional sports.  The case, Summer J. v. United States Baseball Federation, arose from a incident where Summer J, who was sitting in the bleachers at the US Baseball national team trials, suffered serious injuries when she was struck in the face by a line drive foul ball.  The lower court agreed with US Baseball’s argument on demurrer that the suit was barred based on the assumption of risk doctrine:  Plaintiff assumed the particular risks inherent in a sport by choosing to participate, and US Baseball owed no duty to protect Plaintiff from those risks.

However, on review, the Court of Appeal identified some nuances in that line of reasoning.  In reversing and remanding the case, the Court of Appeals relied upon the premise that, while the  assumption of risk doctrine applies to operators, instructors, and participants in the activity, stadium owners have a different type of relationship with spectators and may have a duty to take reasonable measures to minimize inherent risks of injury without altering the nature of the sport, relying on Avila v. Citrus, Nawla v. Cedar Fair, Knight v. Jewett and Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist.  The panel reasoned that installing a protective netting would minimize the risk of the game without altering the nature of the baseball, relying on evidence that over 30 US Baseball teams had already extended their protective netting.  They held that although foul balls are part of baseball, the entity responsible for operating the field had a duty to protect spectators.

How does a ruling like this impact the fans’ return to stadiums?  Will stadium operators be liable for failing to implement safety protocols to protect fans who watch sports in their stadiums from contracting COVID-19?  Will sporting fans be expected to assume the risk of contracting COVID-19 when buying a ticket to a game?  Certainly these are the types of questions being evaluated and considered by stadium owners, operators, and those involved in deciding when fans get to return to sports.  And until such time, we will just have to dream about what it will be like to head back to the stadium.

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