Could the Dodgers Face Legal Trouble After Fan Died From Foul Ball Injury?

Fans assume most of the injury risks they face at MLB games, and teams are usually insulated from any liability. But could the Dodgers be legally responsible for a fan's death after she was struck with a foul ball at a game in August?
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During the ninth inning of a game played between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers last August, 79-year-old Linda Goldbloom was seated with family members in Section 106. As shown on the Dodgers Stadium seating map, Section 106 is located on the Loge Level behind home plate. An unidentified Padres batter faced a pitch from Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and fouled it off. The ball traveled back toward Section 106 and above the stadium’s protective netting.

The ball then struck Goldbloom, a mother of three and grandmother of seven, on the head.

It does not appear that Goldbloom immediately lost consciousness upon impact. Her neurological health, however, would quickly deteriorate. That is because the impact of the ball caused bleeding inside of Goldbloom’s skull. As the bleeding worsened, it increasingly interfered with Goldbloom’s brain tissue. Goldbloom was then rushed by ambulance to L.A County-USC Medical Center, where she would undergo emergency brain surgery. She became unresponsive. For a few days, Goldbloom was kept alive by a ventilator. Goldbloom then passed away, with the Los Angeles County coroner’s report attributing her death to intracranial hemorrhage caused by blunt impact.

The coroner’s finding made clear that Goldbloom died not by natural or by unexplained causes. She died because she was struck in the skull by a foul ball.

This tragic account of Goldbloom’s experience had not been publicly known until Monday, when ESPN’s William Weinbaum detailed it on Outside the Lines. The television and radio broadcast teams for this particular Padres-Dodgers game did not appear to notice what, from their vantage point, might have seemed like an ordinary foul ball event. There was no media coverage of Goldbloom’s passing, either. For their part, the Dodgers had not publicly addressed the incident or its aftermath until Weinbaum requested a statement on Monday.

Goldbloom’s death tragically illustrates the risk of foul ball injuries at baseball games. It also highlights the continuing quandary of whether MLB parks feature sufficient protective netting.

Keep in mind, a foul ball can travel at over 100 miles per hour. If fans are seated near the batter and outside the range of netting, they have almost no time to react. The fact that many fans are looking at their phones or otherwise distracted during games only compounds the risk. Also relevant is the deliberateness of baseball. According to The Wall Street Journal, only 18 minutes of the typical three-hour MLB game contains actual play. This dynamic means that there is plenty of time for fans to become consumed in discussion, reading or activities, and to not be on guard.

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The dangers of foul balls

Foul ball injuries have been a problem for baseball for as long as the sport has been around. While foul ball deaths at MLB games are extremely rare—Weinbaum’s research identifies two other deaths, one in 1943 and another, coincidentally at Dodgers Stadium, in 1970—the frequency of injuries is much higher. According to a study conducted by Bloomberg News in 2014, approximately 1,750 spectators at MLB games are injured by foul balls every season. While many of these injuries are minor, some prove catastrophic.

It was only a couple years ago when a two-year-old girl was hit in the face by a foul ball at Yankee Stadium. This horrific incident was detailed by SI’s Gabriel Baumgaertner, who noted the ball travelled at 105 miles per hour. It was also the subject of an SI legal column. As the girl’s father, Geoffrey Jacobson, later explained to The New York Post, she suffered multiple skull fractures, injuries to both eyes and bleeding on her brain. She would spend six days in New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center’s intensive care unit. Jacobson’s daughter continues to recover to this day.

Yankee stadium was also the venue where New York real estate developer Andrew Zlotnick suffered permanent damage to his left eye in 2011. Zlotnick was seated near first base during a game in which rain fell but was not called off. As those seated in front of him opened up umbrellas, Zlotnick’s line of sight became obstructed. He never saw the foul ball that crashed into his eye, which lead to reconstructive surgery of his eye socket.

Similar catastrophic incidents have occurred at other ballparks. In 2014, Stephanie Taubin was seated in Fenway Park’s EMC Club, which is above home plate. This seating area had been protected by glass, but Taubin attended a game in which the glass had been removed for renovations. Unfortunately, a foul ball travelled up and struck Taubin in the face, causing her facial fractures and neurological damage.

MLB’s response to the problem and pushback by some fans

While the vast majority of fans attend MLB games without suffering any sort of injuries, there are numerous accounts of serious injuries caused by foul balls. In response, MLB has gradually nudged teams to extend netting and protective screening in order to shield a higher percentage of spectators.

In 2015, MLB announced a series of recommendations that advised big league ballparks to add netting or protective barriers. These additions were intended to protect fans “from balls and bats that sometimes go into the stands in all field-level seats between the near ends of both dugouts and within 70 feet of home plate.” Last year, MLB noted that all 30 ballparks agreed to extend protective netting “at least to the end of both dugouts.”

The extension of netting hasn’t been embraced by all. For instance, famed author and lifelong Red Sox fan Stephen King penned an op-ed for The Boston Globe in 2016 in which he questioned the logic of expanded netting. In asking “when does protection become overprotection?” King observed that while no fan should be injured by a foul ball, the odds of suffering such an injury are profoundly low: with roughly 74 million fans attending games each year, foul ball injuries to 1,750 fans means that about two one-thousandths of a percent are injured and 99.998% are not. That constitutes a similar probability to being struck by a bolt of lightning.

King also lamented the impact of watching games through netting. “[You're] still looking through a barrier instead of right at the thing you came to see,” King said of netting, “which means you'd do almost as well to sit home watching the game on TV.”

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The lasting power of the “Baseball Rule”

Injured spectators at baseball games who file personal injury lawsuits usually see their lawsuits defeated. This is mainly because of the so-called “Baseball Rule,” a legal doctrine that largely insulates ballpark operators from liability for spectator injuries caused by foul balls, errantly thrown bats and even objects launched by mascots. So long as the ballpark protects fans who are seated in seats where there is virtually no time to react to foul balls, and so long as the ballpark ascribes to basic industry standards for safety, the team will usually prevail in a lawsuit.

For example, a ballpark must provide screening to persons who are seated directly behind home plate. These persons have virtually no time to react to a line drive foul ball. However, persons who are seated further out toward first base or third base, or those who are seated high above home plate, are generally considered to have enough time to react. Their ability to do so, then, is an assumed “risk” of the seat.

The Baseball Rule also recognizes various steps undertaken by teams to attempt to place the ultimate responsibility for fans’ safety on the fans themselves. To that end, game tickets include language which states, in so many words, that the ticket holder assumes the risk for all dangers inherent to the game. Such phraseology contemplates not only foul ball injuries but also injuries caused by bats, splinters of wood from bats and players who leap into the stands to try to catch foul or home run balls.

Teams also post various warning signs around the ballpark to admonish fans to pay attention during the game. Likewise, public address announcers are instructed to repeatedly warn fans.

Courts have also identified economic arguments in favor of the Baseball Rule. To that end, they have occasionally observed that if fans can easily sue over foul ball injuries, ballparks would face higher insurance costs. Teams, so the thinking goes, would then pass on those heightened costs to fans in the form of higher ticket prices.

Questioning the Baseball Rule

The Baseball Rule might seem appealing because it is very straightforward. Also, for some people, the Baseball Rule is aligned with their inherent skepticism toward personal injury lawsuits and lawyers.

However, the underlying logic behind the Baseball Rule tends to break down when certain circumstances of foul ball injuries are considered.

Take the two-year old child who was grievously injured at Yankee Stadium. At her age, she lacked the mental capacities to meaningfully “assume the risk” of injury. Likewise, she couldn’t have heeded warning signs and ticket disclaimers because she couldn’t read them, let alone understand them. While a rebuttal to this critique might be that the adults who took her to the game should have somehow protected her, that is easier said than done when a ball is flying 105 miles per hour at you.

Still, in a similar circumstance, a six-year-old boy struck by a foul ball at a minor league game lost his case. In Lawson v. Salt Lake Trappers, the court found that the team had met its duty under the Baseball Rule by installing screening in front of seats immediately in front of home plate. The boy was seated outside of that area and thus assumed the risk. On the other hand, Georgia courts refused to allow the Atlanta Braves to defeat a lawsuit brought by a six-year-old girl who was hit by a foul ball while seated behind the dugout (she and the team later reached a settlement).

Consider also Zlotnick’s injury. As an adult, he knowingly accepted the general risk of a foul ball injury while seated in Yankee Stadium. But could Zlotnick have assumed the specific type of foul ball injury that befell him—one that occurred because he (obviously) couldn’t see through umbrellas? Sure, he could have left his seat when the rain fell. Had he done so, he would have never been struck by a foul ball. But there is problem with such hindsight logic. He paid for that seat and the accompanying right to watch a game that continued through the inclement weather.

Taubin’s injury is perhaps another example. She sat in an area that was normally protected by a screen. The screen was designed to (among other things) prevent foul balls from injuring people—the very kind of incident that she suffered.

Yet neither Zlotnick nor Taubin prevailed in their lawsuits. Both were unable to convince courts to look past the longstanding tradition of fans assuming the risk of foul ball injury. Their litigation trajectories comport with those found in many other cases.

BAUMGAERTNER:MLB Must Mandate Expanded Protective Netting Before It's Too Late

Returning to Linda Goldbloom’s death

It remains to be seen if Goldbloom’s death has legal fallout. A statement provided by a Dodgers spokesperson to Weinbaum implies that the team and Goldbloom’s reached a pre-litigation settlement.

“The matter,” the spokesperson wrote, “has been resolved between the Dodgers and the Goldbloom family.” The spokesperson also noted that the Dodgers “cannot comment further.” Similarly, the family of Goldbloom would not comment to Weinbaum on any potential settlement or pending litigation.

Taken together, these comments raise the possibility that the Dodgers and Goldbloom signed an agreement whereby the family relinquishes potential legal claims in exchange for a financial settlement and a confidentiality/non-disparagement agreement. Time will tell if that proves true. If no agreement has been reached, the family could conceivably sue the Dodgers for wrongful death. The Dodgers, in turn, would invoke the Baseball Rule, among other defenses.

For Zlotnick, he hopes that Goldbloom’s tragic death leads to meaningful change for spectator safety. “Injured fans,” Zlotnick tells SI, “have been asking for years whether only a fan’s death would compel MLB’s owners to extend the protective netting far and high enough.” Zlotnick asserts that the death illuminates the often-unappreciated risk of foul balls. “Sadly, Mrs. Goldbloom’s tragedy in Los Angeles highlights the danger that fans still face today, not only at MLB stadiums, but also in smaller minor league ballparks and spring training facilities across the country.” Zlotnick is nonetheless “hopeful” that “all these venues will now make fan safety their top priority and extend the netting.”

These sentiments are shared by Boston attorney Marc Diller, who represented Taubin in her case against the Red Sox. “While MLB has taken positive steps toward fan safety,” Diller tells SI, “they clearly have not gone far enough because nobody should die watching a baseball game. We hope that MLB will learn from these events and take affirmative actions to protect the safety of fans.”

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.