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Lawsuit demands more netting at every MLB, MiLB ballpark Coliseum rendering

A lawsuit filed in federal court is demanding that new netting be installed from foul pole to foul pole at every Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball ballpark to protect fans from the dangers of the foul balls and broken bats.

The lawsuit, which you can read here, lays out a case that baseball fans are suffering from an epidemic of injuries from foul balls, and the only solution is to install netting across the entire grandstand, from foul pole to foul pole. Now, it’s arguable that more netting should be installed at professional ballparks — we’re actually in favor of more netting in some ballparks, such as Fenway Park — but the lawsuit seems a ham-handed effort that likely will be thrown out for various technical issues and precedents.

The lawsuit’s premise is that 1,750 fans are injured yearly by foul balls, and that number can be decreased dramatically with the installation of more netting. The main argument is that the plaintiff, Gail Payne, deserves protection at her 200-level seats at Coliseum, to put her on the same footing as fans buying the more expensive seats behind home plate. (Yes, there is a class component to the lawsuit: fans buying cheap seats are not afforded the same protections as those purchasing VIP seats.) Payne’s lawyers aren’t seeking financial relief for her — smart move, as no one is forcing her to actually buy those Oakland Athletics season tickets, so the most obvious solution would be to stop going to games — but are rather suing MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in an attempt to create a class action, forcing the installation of more netting at every Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball ballpark. As a piece of publicity, this is a brilliant filing. As a legal argument, it’s a little specious.

For starters, that 1,750 figure is highly suspect. It comes from a 2014 Bloomberg News article that tallied injuries at three MLB ballparks — Safeco Field, Marlins Park and Turner Field — as well as interviews with Oriole Park employees and data released on Fenway Park incidents. It then extrapolated that sampling to all of Major League Baseball. But such extrapolation is dangerous and arguably misleading: the foul area at Coliseum is far, far larger than the foul area found at Fenway Park or Marlins Park, and balls that would reach the stands at Marlins Park would be foul outs at Coliseum. (The illustration at the top of the page shows the plaintiff’s seat location.) The whole premise of the lawsuit, then, seems to be undermined by this totally unrealistic statement in the filing:

Plaintiff, Gail Payne, is an individual residing in Alameda County, in Oakland, California. She has been a devout fan of Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s for nearly 50 years, since her aunt took her to her first A’s game in 1968. She loves attending games, has attended many, and this year purchased tickets for the first time. She bought tickets in section 211, which she believes is less expensive than the sections covered by protective netting. At her seats, which are in an exposed section along the first base line, she fears for her and her husband’s safety and particularly for her daughter. Due to the fact that at Oakland Coliseum, the protective netting behind the backstop is minimal, and does not extend to her seat, foul balls have shot into the stands around her more times than she can count. Gail estimates that at every game, at least three or four balls enter her section alone, and she is constantly ducking and weaving to avoid getting hit by foul balls or shattered bats. On one occasion Gail ducked to avoid a foul ball flying her way, but as alleged herein there is no guarantee she can duck the next time. In addition, due to the fact that at Oakland Coliseum, there are many, many distractions, such as a giant screen across from her section, and fan-participation contests that involve texting or using applications on mobile devices, she believes she and other fans are at increase risk of injury.

The lesson here: go sit in Section 211 of Coliseum if you want to catch a foul ball. Best Foul Ball Seats differs, saying the Coliseum is one of the worst spots in MLB to snare a foul ball.

Then there is the direct case law on the issue of injuries at the ballpark: the so-called “Baseball Rule.” Basically, virtually every state and federal court has held that fans should be aware that foul balls are a part of baseball: they’re warned with a long statement on their tickets, they’re warned with signs throughout the ballpark, and they’re warned by P.A. announcers during the course of the game. Even fans on the concourse are assuming risk by just being at the ballpark. Foul balls are an intrinsic part of the ballpark experience, and fans need to be aware of the risk.

There is no doubt MLB needs to review netting policies, and that process is already underway. Indeed, we’d expect some offseason discussion of safety upgrades. But a federal lawsuit with such flimsy arguments seems like something designed more to benefit attorneys forming a class action than to assuage the concerns of nervous A’s fans.

RELATED STORIES: Will fan injury cause MLB/MiLB policy changes?

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