Akins v. Glens Falls City School Dist.

Decision Date18 June 1981
Citation53 N.Y.2d 325,424 N.E.2d 531,441 N.Y.S.2d 644
Parties, 424 N.E.2d 531 Robin AKINS, Respondent, v. GLENS FALLS CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

JASEN, Judge.

On this appeal, we are called upon to define the scope of the duty owed by a proprietor of a baseball field to the spectators attending its games. The specific question presented is whether such an owner, having provided protective screening for the area behind home plate, is liable in negligence for the injuries sustained by a spectator as a result of being struck by a foul ball while standing in an unscreened section of the field. This case does not involve the "culpable conduct" (CPLR 1411)--be it assumption of risk or contributory negligence--of a spectator injured in the course of a baseball game.

In the early afternoon of April 14, 1976, plaintiff attended a high school baseball game that was being played on a field owned and maintained by defendant Glens Falls City School District. The field was equipped with a backstop 24 feet high and 50 feet wide. This backstop was located 60 feet behind home plate and was positioned in front of bleachers that could seat approximately 120 adults. There was additional standing room behind the backstop as well. Two chain link fences, three feet in height, ran from each end of the backstop along the base lines to a distance approximately 60 feet behind first and third base.

Plaintiff arrived while the game was in progress and elected to view the contest from a position behind the three-foot fence along the third base line, approximately 10 to 15 feet from the end of the backstop and 60 feet from home plate. As there were no seating facilities for spectators along the base lines, plaintiff had to stand in order to watch the game. At the time, other spectators were also standing along the base lines behind the three-foot fence. There was, however, no proof that the screened bleachers behind home plate were filled or that plaintiff was prevented from watching the game from behind the backstop. Approximately 10 minutes after arriving at the baseball field, plaintiff was struck in the eye by a sharply hit foul ball, causing her serious and permanent injury.

The present action was then commenced by the plaintiff against the defendant school district. Alleging that the school district was negligent in failing to provide safe and proper screening devices along the base lines of its field, plaintiff sought judgment against the school district in the sum of $250,000. After trial, the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor, assessing damages in the amount of $100,000 and apportioning fault at 65% to the school district and 35% to plaintiff.

On appeal, a divided Appellate Division, 75 A.D.2d 239, 429 N.Y.S.2d 467 affirmed the judgment rendered in plaintiff's favor, one Justice concurring in result and two Justices dissenting. The majority held that there was no error of law which warranted disturbing the jury's verdict. The dissenters were of the view that, as a matter of law, there was no showing of any negligence on the school district's part. According to the dissent, "adequately screened the area of its ball park behind home plate, the defendant fulfilled its duty to the plaintiff and cannot be held in negligence when she herself selected a position that was outside the area screened." (75 A.D.2d, p. 243, 429 N.Y.S.2d 467.) We agree.

Cases involving the liability of an owner of a baseball field for the injuries sustained by those attending its games are not altogether foreign to the courts of this State. Indeed, the doctrine of assumption of risk has had extensive application in a number of cases involving spectators struck by misguided baseballs. (E. g., O'Bryan v. O'Connor, 59 A.D.2d 219, 399 N.Y.S.2d 272; Dillard v. Little League Baseball, 55 A.D.2d 477, 390 N.Y.S.2d 735; Kozera v. Town of Hamburg, 40 A.D.2d 934, 337 N.Y.S.2d 761; Barker v. Topping, 15 A.D.2d 193, 222 N.Y.S.2d 658; Zeitz v. Cooperstown Baseball Centennial, 31 Misc.2d 142, 29 N.Y.S.2d 56; cf. Cadieux v. Board of Educ., 25 A.D.2d 579, 266 N.Y.S.2d 895; Ingersoll v. Onondaga Hockey Club, 245 App.Div. 137, 281 N.Y.S. 505.) As was aptly summarized by Chief Judge Cardozo, the spectator at a sporting event, no less than the participant, "accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary, just as a fencer accepts the risk of a thrust by his antagonist or a spectator at a ball game the chance of contact with the ball * * * The timorous may stay at home." (Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 N.Y. 479, 482-483, 166 N.E. 173.) However, because these cases arose prior to the adoption of the comparative negligence rule in this State (CPLR 1411), application of the assumption of risk doctrine served as a complete bar to a plaintiff's cause of action without regard to the degree of care exercised by the owner of the ball park. As a result, aside from two lower court decisions (Adonnino v. Village of Mount Morris, 171 Misc. 383, 12 N.Y.S.2d 658; Blackhall v. Capital Dist. Baseball Ass'n, 154 Misc. 640, 278 N.Y.S. 649, affd 157 Misc. 801, 285 N.Y.S. 695), there is no case law in this State which defines the duty of care owed by a proprietor of a baseball field to its spectators. We now define that duty.

At the outset, it should be stated that an owner of a baseball field is not an insurer of the safety of its spectators. Rather, like any other owner or occupier of land, it is only under a duty to exercise "reasonable care under the circumstances" to prevent injury to those who come to watch the games played on its field. (Basso v. Miller, 40 N.Y.2d 233, 386 N.Y.S.2d 564, 352 N.E.2d 868; Scurti v. City of New York, 40 N.Y.2d 433, 387 N.Y.S.2d 55, 354 N.E.2d 794.) The perils of the game of baseball, however, are not so imminent that due care on the part of the owner requires that the entire playing field be screened. Indeed, many spectators prefer to sit where their view of the game is unobstructed by fences or protective netting and the proprietor of a ball park has a legitimate interest in catering to these desires. Thus, the critical question becomes what amount of screening must be provided by an owner of a baseball field before it will be found to have discharged its duty of care to its spectators.

Other jurisdictions addressing this question have adopted various standards in defining the duty of a ball park proprietor to protect its spectators from stray balls. Some courts have held that an owner merely has a duty to screen such seats as are adequate to provide its spectators with an opportunity to sit in a protected area if they so desire. (E. g., Crane v. Kansas City Baseball & Exhibition Co., 168 Mo.App. 301, 153 S.W. 1076; McNiel v. Fort Worth Baseball Club, 268 S.W.2d 244 Other courts have stated that a proprietor of a baseball field need only screen as many seats as may reasonably be expected to be applied for on an ordinary occasion by those desiring such protection. (Quinn v. Recreation Park Ass'n, 3 Cal.2d 725, 46 P.2d 144; Leek v. Tacoma Baseball Club, 38 Wash.2d 362, 229 P.2d 329.) Most courts, however, have adopted a two-prong standard in defining the scope of an owner's duty to provide protective screening for its patrons. Under the majority rule, the owner must screen the most dangerous section of the field--the area behind home plate--and the screening that is provided must be sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion. (E. g., Maytnier v. Rush, 80 Ill.App.2d 336, 225 N.E.2d 83; Brisson v. Minneapolis Baseball & Athletic Ass'n, 185 Minn. 507, 240 N.W. 903; Erickson v. Lexington Baseball Club, 233 N.C. 627, 65 S.E.2d 140; see, generally, Liability to Spectator at Baseball Game Who Is Hit by Ball or Injured As Result of Other Hazards of Game, Ann., 91 A.L.R.3d 24.) We believe this to be the better rule and adopt this definition of the duty owed by an owner of a baseball field to provide protective screening for its spectators.

We hold that, in the exercise of reasonable care, the proprietor of a ball park need only provide screening for the area of the field behind home plate where the danger of being struck by a ball is the greatest. Moreover, such screening must be of sufficient extent to provide adequate protection for as many spectators as may reasonably be expected to desire such seating in the course of an ordinary game. In so holding, we merely recognize the practical realities of this sporting event. As mentioned earlier, many spectators attending such exhibitions desire to watch the contest taking place on the playing field without having their view obstructed or obscured by a fence or a protective net. In ministering to these desires, while at the same time providing adequate protection in the most dangerous area of the field for those spectators who wish to avail themselves of it, a proprietor fulfills its duty of reasonable care under such circumstances.

This is not to say that, by adequately screening the area of the field where the incidence of foul balls is the greatest, the risks inherent in viewing the game are completely eliminated. Rather, even after the exercise of reasonable care, some risk of being struck by a ball will continue to exist. Moreover, contrary to the supposition of the dissent, we do not attempt to prescribe precisely what, as a matter of law, are the required dimensions of a baseball field backstop. Nor do we suggest that where the adequacy of the screening in terms of protecting the area behind home plate properly is put in issue, the case should not be submitted to the jury. We merely hold that where a proprietor of a ball park furnishes screening for the area of the field behind home plate where the danger of being struck by a ball is...

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