Court rules ballpark netting lawsuit can proceed

The issue of protective netting at Major League Baseball (MLB) stadia has returned to the agenda after an Illinois appellate court ruled that a woman struck by a foul ball at Wrigley Field can proceed with a lawsuit she filed against the League.

The appellate court, in upholding a lower court ruling, yesterday said the plaintiff, Laiah Zuniga, was not limited to arbitrating her case with MLB. The Associated Press news agency said the court noted the arbitration provision was hidden in fine print and therefore couldn’t be appreciated by the plaintiff.

A 2018 Chicago Cubs game saw Zuniga struck in the face by a foul ball, an incident which she claims knocked her unconscious, caused facial fractures and extensive damage to her teeth. In the lawsuit filed last year, Zuniga states she was hit because Wrigley Field hadn’t extended netting that protects fans from foul balls all the way down the third base line, where she was sitting.

The AP notes that the assumption of risk for the spectator has been detailed on tickets for more than a century, meaning that professional sports teams have on the whole been protected from lawsuits.

In its ruling, the court noted the likelihood a ticket holder would see or read the full arbitration provision by accessing a team’s website or visiting its administrative office is further diminished by the lack of clear instruction to do so on a ticket.

“I think it was a well-reasoned ruling,” said Henry Simmons, managing partner of the law firm representing Zuniga, adding that a ticket holder is at a disadvantage when it comes to the conditions listed on a ticket.

Simmons pointed to the need to go to a team’s website to learn the terms of the arbitration agreement, including the need of a buyer to notify the team of a rejection of these terms within seven days. “It doesn’t make any sense,” Simmons said. “That is the reason the court found it unconscionable.”

MLB set out recommendations for protective netting or screens in December 2015, encouraging teams to install it between the ends of the dugouts closest to home plate. Expanding the netting became an issue after a spate of fan injuries.

Before the 2018 season, MLB mandated that netting extend to the far end of each dugout. In December 2019, MLB announced that all 30 teams would have expanded protective netting beyond the far ends of each dugout at their ballparks in 2020, as part of ongoing efforts to address the issue of fans being struck by foul balls and pieces of broken bats.

Image: Ryan Dickey/CC BY 2.0/Edited for size