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Court News Ohio

Eighth District: Court to Decide if Indians Fan Hit by Ball Was Forced to Leave His Seat

A trial court must decide if a fan hit by a foul ball during a Cleveland Indians game was forced to clear out of his seat for an after-game fireworks show or if he moved into the ball’s flightpath on his own, an Ohio appeals court ruled.

The Eighth District Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed the decision of a Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court that used the traditional “baseball rule” to clear the Indians of a negligence claim by Keith Rawlins. The appeals court overturned the summary judgment ruling granted to the Indians, and it sent the case back to the trial court for further testimony.

Rawlins and his daughter attended a July 2012 Indians game. When they arrived at their seats, they found signs indicating the Cleveland Fire Department required some sections to be cleared “at the conclusion of the game.”

The Rawlinses sat in the seats, and around the seventh inning other fans began to indicate that ushers were starting to move them out of the sections for the fireworks show. Rawlins said at the top of the ninth inning an usher “ordered them to immediately vacate their seats.” However, he testified that the usher did not tell him he had to move, but rather “just stood there with her arms folded” and stared at him. His daughter also did not recall being told to move.

But as they left their seats, Rawlins was struck with a foul ball. He sued claiming the accident occurred because they were ordered out of their seats. The Indians contend the Rawlinses voluntarily left their seats and the baseball rule applies barring the club from being sued for injuries.

Writing for the Eighth District, Judge Larry A. Jones Sr. explained the baseball rule was established in 1925 in a lawsuit against the Cincinnati Reds. It generally states that baseball fans are aware balls and bats fly into the stands and are in the best position to protect themselves from being hit. Because of the inherent dangers of the game, the team is not liable for injury claims against it.

Judge Jones noted the Indians not only warn fans during the game to be on watch for flying objects, but also printed on the tickets is a warning the spectators assume all the risks and danger incidental to a baseball game “including activities or events before, during or after the baseball game.”

While a fan normally cannot sue for being hit by a ball, Judge Jones wrote there are incidents where the team might be liable if there are “attendant circumstances” where an injury would occur from something other than the normal course of the game. For instance in the 1925 case against the Reds, the fan wanted to sue because he was hit by a ball not while the game was being played, but during the intermission between games in a double-header where players were practicing in areas far closer to the stands than where they would be in a game.

Rawlins claimed the usher forcing them to move was one of those attendant circumstances because they were being asked for move before the conclusion of the game contrary to what was stated on the signs. The Indians cited a 2007 Second District Court of Appeals case Harting v. Dayton Dragons Professional Baseball Club, LLC., to argue the baseball rule applies even during a non-baseball related event. In Harting the fan claimed she was knocked unconscious from a foul ball because she was watching the famed San Diego Chicken performing on the field in front of her during the game. The court found that even if distracted by the mascot, the fan has a duty to be on the lookout for foul balls while the game is in play.

Rawlins and the Indians also produced conflicting depositions from surrounding fans as to whether the ushers were forcing people to leave their seats early or whether people were leaving voluntarily as the Indians were losing at the time.

Judge Jones ruled it is up to the trial court to decide first if the ushers forced people to leave and then if so, did Rawlins still have a duty to watch out for foul balls.

“Spectators at sporting events routinely leave their seats – to go to the restroom or purchase concessions for example – and are still subject to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk,” Judge Jones wrote. “But a different circumstance may be created when spectators are forced to leave their seats for a non-emergency or unjustified reason.”

Judges Tim McCormack and Mary J. Boyle concurred in the opinion.

Rawlins v. Cleveland Indians Baseball Co., Inc., 2015-Ohio-4587
Civil Appeal from: Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: Nov. 5, 2015

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