Personal Injury

Spectator Sports: Personal Injury Risks and Rights

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

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Ask any fan and they'll tell you that injuries are an inevitable part of professional sports, but does that go for spectators as well as players? If you're hit by a foul ball at a baseball game, a wayward puck at a hockey rink, or even vehicle debris at a racetrack, can you file a personal injury claim against the facility and/or the team? Read on to learn more.

What is "Assumption of the Risk"?

To put it bluntly, "assumption of the risk" is the legal landscape where most spectator injury claims go to die.

Owners and operators of sporting venues and events are well aware of the risk of injury to spectators. In order to avoid liability, teams make sure tickets to games contain "fine print" warnings advising spectators that the facility won't be responsible if a spectator is injured by an occurrence that is a normal part of the game. In addition, warning signs are typically posted and the announcer usually reminds fans to be on the lookout for objects entering the stands.

So, when you buy a ticket to a sporting event, by entering the stadium you are in some ways waiving your right to sue for injuries that occur in a manner that is reasonably foreseeable -- a foul ball ending up in the stands, a puck flying over the safety glass, etc.

This waiver is based on the well-established doctrine of "assumption of the risk," and most courts will dismiss a personal injury lawsuit seeking damages for injuries sustained at a sporting event, unless the injury was not foreseeable or the facility/team or someone else demonstrated clear negligence in connection with the incident.

Spectators Don't "Assume" Every Risk

Of course, wherever there is a rule, there is always an exception. Sports teams, facilities, and property managers can still be held liable if their negligence plays a part in causing or contributing to a spectator injury.

For example, most baseball stadiums place a close-mesh protective net behind home plate because high-velocity foul balls are hit in this area. The net protects fans sitting near home plate who have less time to react to a foul ball. If this net is improperly placed, or if it has been allowed to deteriorate, and a spectator is injured as a result, then the doctrine of "assumption of the risk" won't protect the team/facility from liability.

Of course, the team and/or the facility manager must also make sure that the premises are reasonably safe and properly maintained for fans. That means any hazardous conditions -- such as broken stairs and loose railings -- must be spotted and repaired within a reasonable time, and there must be adequate security in place under the circumstances. Speaking of which...

What About Inadequate Stadium Security?

In 2014, a Los Angeles jury awarded $18 million to Bryan Stow, who was beaten and sustained debilitating injuries outside Dodger Stadium after a baseball game there in 2011. That lawsuit alleged that Dodgers ownership failed to provide proper security for fans in and around the stadium, and the jury heard evidence of an understaffed security team and inadequate lighting before finding in favor of Stow and ordering the Dodgers to pay damages, including a large share of the costs of his ongoing medical treatment.

This high-profile verdict may serve as precedent for future injury claims by fans who have been assaulted at sporting events. But it's important to note that "assumption of the risk" isn't usually raised in response to this kind of lawsuit.

Protect Yourself and Your Injury Claim

If you are injured at a sporting event, you should report what happened to someone who works for the facility, and make sure a supervisor or manager is notified. Also make sure that the details of the incident are accurately recorded in any report that is generated. Ask for a copy of the report for your own records. If there were witnesses to the incident, try to obtain their names and contact information for yourself, and also make sure this information is included in the report.

Get immediate medical treatment for any injuries and make sure your medical provider records the details of the incident in your medical records. Take pictures to document your injuries. Make sure you follow up with any recommended treatment.

If your injuries are anything more than minor, this isn't the kind of personal injury case you want to try handling on your own. Especially if you decide to file a lawsuit against a professional sports team and its partners, you're going to be up against some high-profile entities with their equally high-powered law firms and attorneys. Learn more about Why It's a Good Idea to Hire a Personal Injury Lawyer.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What if a sporting event is held in a public place without tickets? Do spectators assume the risk of watching sporting events if there are only warning signs at a facility?
  • How difficult is it to show that a facility owner or operator needed to go further in taking protective measures for spectators, like greater coverage for nets at a ballpark?
  • In cases where bystanders are injured in a fight among fans, who is liable?
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