Benejam v. Detroit Tigers, Inc.

Decision Date09 October 2001
Docket NumberDocket No. 217727.
Citation246 Mich. App. 645,635 N.W.2d 219
PartiesAlyssia Maribel BENEJAM, a minor; Ysabel Benejam and Robert Benejam, Individually, Jointly and as Next Friends of Alyssia Maribel Benejam, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. DETROIT TIGERS, INC., a Michigan Corporation, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

James O. Elliott, Bloomfield Hills (Sommers, Schwartz, Silver & Schwartz, P.C. by Patrick Burkett, Southfield, of Counsel), for the plaintiffs.

Dickinson Wright PLLC (by Barbara H. Erard and Paul R. Bernard), Detroit, for the defendant.

Thomas, DeGrood, Witenoff & Hoffman, P.C. (by Gary N. Felty, Jr., and John J. Hoffman), Southfield, amicus curiae for Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Before BANDSTRA, C.J., and ZAHRA and METER, JJ.

BANDSTRA, C.J.

In this case, we are asked to determine whether we should adopt, as a matter of Michigan law, the "limited duty" rule that other jurisdictions have applied with respect to spectator injuries at baseball games. Under that rule, a baseball stadium owner is not liable for injuries to spectators that result from projectiles leaving the field during play if safety screening has been provided behind home plate and there are a sufficient number of protected seats to meet ordinary demand. We conclude that the limited duty doctrine should be adopted as a matter of Michigan law and that there was no evidence presented at trial that defendants failed to meet that duty. Further, we conclude that there is no duty to warn spectators at a baseball game of the well-known possibility that a bat or ball might leave the field. We therefore conclude that there is no evidence to support the verdict rendered on behalf of plaintiffs against defendant and we reverse and remand.

FACTS

Plaintiff Alyssia M. Benejam, a young girl, attended a Tigers game with a friend and members of the friend's family and was seated quite close to the playing field along the third base line. The stadium was equipped with a net behind home plate, and the net extended part of the way down the first and third base lines. Although Alyssia was behind the net, she was injured when a player's bat broke and a fragment of it curved around the net.1 There was no evidence, and plaintiffs do not contend, that the fragment of the bat went through the net, that there was a hole in the net, or that the net was otherwise defective.

Plaintiffs sued the Tigers, claiming primarily2 that the net was insufficiently long and that warnings about the possibility of projectiles leaving the field were inadequate.3 The Tigers responded with motions before, during, and after trial arguing that, as a matter of law, plaintiffs could not or did not present any viable legal claim. Those motions were all denied by the trial court. Alyssia suffered crushed fingers as a result of the accident and the jury awarded plaintiffs noneconomic damages (past and future) totaling $917,000, lost earning capacity of $56,700 and $35,000 for past and future medical expenses. Damages are not at issue on appeal.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Defendant's arguments concern the duty of care and duty to warn applicable in this case. Questions regarding the nature and extent of a tortfeasor's duty are issues of law subject to review de novo. Groncki v. Detroit Edison Co., 453 Mich. 644, 649, 557 N.W.2d 289 (1996).

STANDARD OF CARE/PROTECTIVE SCREENING

Defendant argues that although there is no Michigan law directly on point, other jurisdictions have balanced the safety benefits of providing a protective screen against the fact that such screening detracts from the allure of attending a live baseball game by placing an obstacle or insulation between fans and the playing field. The rule that emerges in these cases is that a stadium proprietor cannot be liable for spectator injuries if it has satisfied a "limited duty"—to erect a screen that will protect the most dangerous area of the spectator stands, behind home plate, and to provide a number of seats in this area sufficient to meet the ordinary demand for protected seats. In this case, there is no dispute that the Tigers constructed a protective screen behind home plate, and there was no evidence that the screen was insufficient to meet the ordinary demand for protected seating. Defendant argues the circuit court erred in failing to recognize the limited duty doctrine and in denying motions based on that doctrine for summary disposition, a directed verdict, and judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Plaintiffs argue against application of the limited duty doctrine and contend that, under usual principles of premises liability, the circuit court correctly concluded that a jury question was presented. Defendant (an invitor) had a duty to exercise ordinary care and prudence and maintain premises reasonably safe for invitees like Alyssia. Plaintiffs argue that the jury verdict was supported by sufficient evidence that the defendant failed to fulfill this duty because it did not provide a screen extending long enough along the third (and first) base lines.

There is no Michigan case law directly on point.4 Our review of precedents from other jurisdictions finds overwhelming, if not universal,5 support for the limited duty rule that defendant advocates. See, e.g., Lawson v. Salt Lake Trappers, Inc., 901 P.2d 1013, 1015 (Utah, 1995); Bellezzo v. Arizona, 174 Ariz. 548, 553-554, 851 P.2d 847 (Ariz.App., 1992); Arnold v. City of Cedar Rapids, 443 N.W.2d 332, 333 (Iowa, 1989); Friedman v. Houston Sports Ass'n, 731 S.W.2d 572, 574-575 (Tex.App., 1987); Swagger v. City of Crystal, 379 N.W.2d 183, 185 (Minn.App., 1985); Rudnick v. Golden West Broadcasters, 156 Cal.App.3d 793, 796, 202 Cal.Rptr. 900 (1984).6 The logic of these precedents is that there is an inherent risk of objects leaving the playing field that people know about when they attend baseball games. See, e.g., Swagger, supra at 185 ("[n]o one of ordinary intelligence could see many innings of the ordinary league [baseball] game without coming to a full realization that batters cannot and do not control the direction of the ball"), quoting Brisson v. Minneapolis Baseball & Athletic Ass'n, 185 Minn. 507, 509-510, 240 N.W. 903 (1932).7 Also, there is inherent value in having most seats unprotected by a screen because baseball patrons generally want to be involved with the game in an intimate way and are even hoping that they will come in contact with some projectile from the field (in the form of a souvenir baseball). See, e.g., Rudnick, supra at 802, 202 Cal.Rptr. 900 ("the chance to apprehend a misdirected baseball is as much a part of the game as the seventh inning stretch or peanuts and Cracker Jack"). In other words, spectators know about the risk of being in the stands and, in fact, welcome that risk to a certain extent. On the other hand, the area behind home plate is especially dangerous and spectators who want protected seats should be able to find them in this area. Balancing all of these concerns, courts generally have adopted the limited duty doctrine that prevents liability if there are a sufficient number of protected seats behind home plate to meet the ordinary demand for that kind of seating. If that seating is provided, the baseball stadium owner has fulfilled its duty and there can be no liability for spectators who are injured by a projectile from the field.

An oft-cited precedent, Akins v. Glens Falls City School Dist., 53 N.Y.2d 325, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644, 424 N.E.2d 531 (1981), provides a good illustration of the reasoning employed. There, a spectator at a baseball game was permanently and seriously injured when a sharply hit foul ball struck her in the eye. Id. at 327, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644, 424 N.E.2d 531. As is the case in Michigan,8 New York has disavowed the "assumption of risk" doctrine and thus the Akins court analyzed the situation anew, without reliance on that doctrine. Id. at 329, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644, 424 N.E.2d 531. In doing so, the court reasoned 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. [Id. (citations omitted).]

The court noted that "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." Id. at 330, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644, 424 N.E.2d 531. Balancing the interests involved, the court adopted what it considered to be 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." Id. The Akins court reasoned that this rule appropriately recognizes the "practical realities of this sporting event." Id. at 331, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644, 424 N.E.2d 531.

We find Akins and similar precedents to be well-reasoned and persuasive. It seems axiomatic that baseball fans attend games knowing that, as a natural result of play, objects may leave the field with the potential of causing injury in the stands. It is equally clear that most spectators, nonetheless, prefer to be as "close to the play" as possible, without an insulating and obstructive screen between them and the action. In contrast, a smaller number of spectators prefer the protection offered by screening. The most dangerous part of the spectator stands is the area in the lower deck behind home plate and along each of the baselines. Certainly home plate is the center of the most activity on the field. Most notably, it is there that pitched balls, traveling at great speeds in a...

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