Major League Baseball debuts don’t get much worse than right fielder Dustin Fowler’s. The Yankees prospect started his professional career during the Yankees 2017 run to the American League Championship series in a game against the Chicago White Sox. But Fowler never got to bat in the game. He was due to face White Sox pitcher James Shields in the top of the second inning, but in the bottom of the first he attempted to field a foul ball down the first base line and stumbled over a partially buried electrical utility vault and suffered an open rupture of his patellar tendon. (Video of the injury can be found here and pictures of the offending electrical box here.) Immediately after suffering the injury Fowler hobbled for a few seconds before falling to the ground, unable to put any weight on his leg. He was carried off the field on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to the emergency room. Then, while recovering from the devastating injury, Fowler was traded to the Oakland Athletics.
Fowler also filed a lawsuit against the White Sox seeking damages for his knee injury. Like many states, Illinois has a workers’ compensation law which, with few exceptions, does not allow an employee to sue an employer for an injury suffered while on the job. However, since Fowler was playing in an away game at the time of his injury, his premises liability lawsuit is not against his employer, the Yankees, but rather, against his opponent that day, the White Sox. Therefore, Fowler’s premises liability lawsuit does not appear to be subject to the workers’ compensation bar.
In essence, the premises liability rules describe a landowner’s or land manager’s liability for a person’s injuries arising from the negligent ownership or maintenance of property. In his lawsuit, Fowler has sued two parties: (1) the limited partnership that owns the White Sox, and (2) the Illinois government agency that owns Guaranteed Rate Field, the major league ballpark where the White Sox play their home games. The complaint alleges that although the wall Fowler crashed into while fielding a foul ball was padded, there was an electrical box located at a hazardous knee-high location that was left unpadded. The electrical box was installed to provide White Sox fans access to free Wi-Fi during the games, presumably so fans could look at their phones instead of being forced to the watch the cellar-dwelling White Sox play baseball. Fowler’s complaint alleges that it is predictable that a baseball player would run into the unpadded electrical box causing an injury, and that the exposed box constituted a hazardous condition.
The Illinois court will first have to decide whether Illinois law imposes a duty on the White Sox or the owner of the field to warn or protect players from hidden on-field hazards. Illinois follows the “reasonably foreseeable” standard which holds that a party has a duty to all persons who could suffer a reasonably foreseeable harm as a result of that party’s actions. This rule was developed from a concept that Judge Learned Hand (yes, that really was his name – and presumably since he was a celebrated judge and judicial philosopher, he also had a Learned Head) created which weighed the likelihood of injury and the seriousness of the injury against the burden on the defendant to take precautions against that injury. Premises liability under California law uses a similar reasonably foreseeable standard, but also analyzes other factors such as the degree of certainty of the injury, the connection between the landowner’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the landowner’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden of the landowner, and the availability, cost and prevalence of insurance.
Here, given that the rest of the wall is padded, and the fact that it is a common occurrence for a baseball player to run into the area of the wall where the electrical box was located, it’s foreseeable that a player could be injured when colliding with the unpadded electrical box. Therefore, the court could very well find that the landowner and property manager have a duty to take adequate precautions by, for example, painting the box yellow so it is visible or putting padding over the box. Failing to do so could be a breach of their duty. Given the gash in Fowler’s knee and videotape evidence of Fowler running into the electrical box it is likely that the defendant’s breach of duty (e.g. the failure to paint or pad the box) caused his injuries.
There are a number of ways the defendants could have defended the case on the merits, including arguing that no duty was owed and that Fowler assumed the risk of the injury he sustained. However, these arguments are likely not winners since the injury was reasonably foreseeable as discussed above, and it’s hard to argue that running into an exposed electrical box is a risk that baseball player assumes when playing baseball the same way that getting hit by a pitch is.
The attorneys for the White Sox and the owner of Guaranteed Rate Field attempted to remove the case to federal court and arguing that the lawsuit is preempted by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the player’s union and MLB, which governs players’ safety and health. However, the attempt to remove to federal court was ultimately unsuccessful and Fowler’s case will proceed in state court where it was originally filed.
A property owner or property manager who is found negligent in failing to keep real property in a reasonably safe condition can be held liable for the injuries sustained on the property. Compensatory damages can include medical bills, physical and occupational therapy, lost wages, lost earning capacity, and pain and suffering. Dustin Fowler’s case could be interesting from a damages perspective because of the high numbers involved where you have an injury to a professional athlete who relies on his physical health to make at least hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
In 2018, Fowler exhibited some of the pre-injury hitting form from last year that made him a top prospect in the Yankees system. In fact, he stole 6 bases in 192 major league at bats, which would seem to indicate that his knee has fully healed. Since his attorneys were successful in convincing the Illinois court that the case should stay in state court, he may be “stealing” more than bases from the White Sox next year – he may also swipe a decent settlement or judgment based on his premises liability claim.
We are happy that Fowler seems to be fully healed, and has been able to continue his career. Had he not healed from his injury, Fowler would have joined a dubious two man club of right fielder’s whose big league career consisted of one inning without a plate appearance along with Archibald “Moonlight” Graham.
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