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Lawsuit filed for girl injured by foul ball at Braves game

By Bill Rankin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The line drive sliced over the visitor’s dugout and into the crowd before anyone could get of the way.
The foul ball, struck at the Aug. 30, 2010, Braves-Mets game at Turner Field, slammed into the head of a 6-year-old girl, fracturing her skull, damaging her brain.

This week the child’s father filed a lawsuit against the Braves, its owner, Liberty Media Corp., and Major League Baseball Enterprises, alleging that they were negligent for failing to provide proper protection for his daughter.

Neither the Braves nor Major League Baseball would comment on the lawsuit, but scores of suits are filed each year around the country by spectators struck by balls and bats at all levels of competition.

“It’s a very, very dangerous situation that can be easily remedied,” Mike Moran said Wednesday. “They can make it a safer place for the fans, in particular the children, who go to games. … The easy remedy is to put up more netting.”

The suit, filed Monday in Fulton County State Court, does not disclose the identities of the girl and her father to protect the girl’s privacy, Moran, said. The suit seeks unspecified damages for the girl’s pain and suffering, punitive damages and compensation for the family’s medical expenses, which are expected to exceed $100,000.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution knows the identity of the girl but is withholding her name at the family’s request.

Braves spokeswoman Beth Marshall said the team is aware the lawsuit has been filed but, because it is a pending legal matter, the organization, “will be withholding comment at this time.”

Patrick Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said the league does not comment on pending litigation. He did note that it is each team’s decision as to how much netting is to be installed at individual stadiums, depending on local laws and a ballpark’s configuration.

About 200 lawsuits are filed each year by spectators hit by wayward bats and balls at all levels of competition down to Little League, said Gil Fried, who chairs the University of New Haven’s management and sports department.

The lawsuits rarely succeed. “It’s the baseball rule: Tough luck. When you come to the ballpark, you assume the risk,” Fried said.

The back of all major league baseball tickets includes the warning: “The holder assumes all risk and danger incidental to the game of baseball, whether occurring prior to, during or subsequent to, the actual playing of the game, including specifically … the danger of being injured by thrown or batted balls, thrown or broken bats.”

The Braves also flash warnings on the scoreboard during games, reminding fans to stay alert.

Kevin Jones, a Braves season ticket holder from Vinings, calling the case “devastatingly sad,” also observed, “It says point-blank on the tickets that you assume the risk. That’s as iron clad as Tom Cruise’s pre-nup.”

Jones, whose seats are on the lower level between home plate and first base, said he is at full attention when a batter is up. This is particularly true, he said, when the hitter is right-handed hitter and late swing will foul a shot off in Jones’ direction.

Fried, who has written extensively on the history of foul ball litigation, said his studies show that the most vulnerable seating areas at baseball stadiums are behind the dugouts. He noted that many major league teams have netting in front of the dugouts to shield the players. “But they don’t have any netting a few feet above that to protect the fans.”

Fried said MLB should study the issue to determine the most high-risk places at ballparks and, if necessary, provide netting to protect them.

It used to be that fans who flocked to ballparks did little more than watch the game. Now they gaze at flashy scoreboards, take kids to play areas and, increasingly, have their eyes glued their smartphones while texting, tweeting or scanning the Internet.

Just this month, a fan at a San Diego Padres game was struck in the chest by a foul ball as he updated the status on his Facebook page.

Only one spectator has been killed at a major league game by a foul ball — 14-year-old Alan Fish at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 1970. Two years ago, a 39-year-old woman seated behind the third base dugout was killed by a foul ball at a United League Baseball game in San Angelo, Texas.

Robert Gorman, co-author of “Death at the Ballpark,” which chronicles fatalities at baseball games, estimated that 100 or more spectators have been killed by foul balls, from sandlot games to the majors. Lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries rarely succeed, he said.

“If I were a parent I would not take my kid to sit down near the field level,” he said. “I think you’d be taking a real risk.”

Moran, the lawyer who filed suit against the Braves, said the team was well aware of the problem, particularly after Braves minor league manager Luis Salazar was hit in the face by a foul ball at a spring training game. The damage was so extensive Salazar’s left eye was removed.

The lawsuit cites comments Braves’ third baseman Chipper Jones gave The AJC in May 2011 after Salazar was injured.

Jones said his four sons either sit in his luxury suite or occasionally in the SunTrust seats directly behind home plate, protected by the screen.

“You throw 90 to 100 miles per hour and you have a guy up there swinging 90 or 100 miles per hour and it’s just a recipe for disaster,” Jones said. “What if that ball that hit Salazar hit a 5-year-old little girl in the front row over the top of the dugout? It would have killed her.”

One of the most common complaints about adding netting around the first- and third-base lines is that it obstructs the fans’ views.

“That’s a red herring,” Moran countered. “Where are the most expensive seats? Behind home plate. Behind the screen.”

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