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Injured baseball fan cries foul over screening

A great writer once said the one constant through the years has been baseball, but the game has actually changed a lot since Joe DiMaggio’s first MVP season in 1939. The teams are integrated, the games are televised, and the Cubs are world champions. Also, most teams today take greater pains to protect fans from the danger of foul balls.

But since 1939 North Carolina courts have, when considering lawsuits brought by fans injured by batted balls, followed what’s known as “The Baseball Rule,” which holds that field operators fully discharge their duty to safeguard spectators if they provide a sufficient number of adequately screened seats behind home plate. As such, prevailing in such suits is as difficult as hitting a Clayton Kershaw curveball.

So it went for a spectator struck by a foul ball at a summer league game in Cumberland County in 2012 when the ball managed to slice through a 10-inch gap between the screening protecting the home plate bleachers and those protecting the first base bleachers. (Quite the fluke, since a baseball is almost three inches wide.) The patron said the screening along the first baseline lured him into a false sense of security that led him to take his eye off the ball.

A Court of Appeals panel, in an unpublished April 18 opinion, affirmed a grant of the defendant’s motion to dismiss. But in an unusual step for an unpublished opinion, Judge Valerie Zachary wrote a dissent holding that a jury should be able to consider any allegations that a gap in a field’s screening allowed a baseball to pass through and injure a plaintiff.

The dissent means that the plaintiff can bring his case to the seven umpires on the state’s Supreme Court. But like a close play at the plate, it’s unlikely that this call will be overturned on review.

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