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Maisonave v. Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club

September 13, 2005

LOUIS MAISONAVE AND MYRNA MAISONAVE, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
THE NEWARK BEARS PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL CLUB, INC. AND GOURMET DINING SERVICES, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND ABC CORP. (NAME BEING FICTITIOUS) AND JOHN DOE (NAME BEING FICTITIOUS), DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 371 N.J. Super. 129 (2004).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this case in which the plaintiff was injured after being struck by a foul ball at a baseball game, the Court considers whether the owners and operators of baseball stadiums owe a duty of care to their patrons to protect against such harm.

Plaintiff Louis Maisonave suffered a facial injury when a foul ball struck him in the eye as he stood in the mezzanine at Riverfront Stadium, home of minor league baseball team The Newark Bears. The mezzanine is an open walking area exposed on one side to the baseball field. Vendors sell food and beverages on that level and restrooms are located there. At the time of the incident, vending carts dotted the mezzanine along both the first and third base lines on the field-side of the mezzanine. Although netting protected the seating area behind home plate and extended for some distance down both base lines, the beverage cart that Maisonave was patronizing was beyond the protection of the net. As he was talking with other people in the vending line, Maisonave was struck with a batted ball in the right eye, causing numerous fractures and other injuries.

Alleging negligence, Maisonave sued The Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, Inc. and Gourmet Dining Services, which provides food and beverage services to the stadium (hereinafter, the Bears). The Bears moved for summary judgment. The trial judge granted the motion, finding that the Bears had not breached their duty of care. In reaching that conclusion, the trial judge relied on Schneider v. American Hockey & Ice Skating Center, Inc., 342 N.J. Super. 527, 533-34 (App. Div.), certif. denied, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Zazzali

Argued February 14, 2005

The first recorded baseball game took place at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken on June 19, 1846. Leonard Koppett, Koppett's Concise History of Major League Baseball 7 (2004). Since then, the game has become an integral part of our American identity and has emerged as an ever-expanding business. George F. Will, Bunts 28 (1999) ("The business of America is business, and so, of course, is the national pastime."); see also Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258, 282, 92 S.Ct. 2099, 2112, 32 L.Ed. 2d 728, 743 (1972) ("Professional baseball is a business and is engaged in interstate commerce."). Between 1994 and 2001, eight minor league stadiums opened in New Jersey alone. As an increasing number of citizens flock to competitive baseball games, we confront difficult questions of tort liability.

Here, a foul ball struck plaintiff in the face as he purchased a beverage from a mobile vending cart on the concourse of a minor league stadium. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the stadium owners and operators, holding that the trial court erred in finding that defendants had not violated their duty of care as a matter of law.

In this appeal, we survey the law that has evolved concerning owner and operator liability and examine the boundaries of the limited duty rule. In doing so, we must accommodate the interests of both fans and owners. We hold that the limited duty rule, which restricts the tort liability of owners, applies in situations where an injury occurs in the stands. However, public policy and fairness require application of traditional negligence principles in all other areas of the stadium, including, but not limited to, concourses and mezzanine areas.

I.

Plaintiff Louis Maisonave suffered a facial injury when a foul ball struck him in the eye as he stood on the mezzanine at Riverfront Stadium, home field of minor league baseball team, The Newark Bears. The mezzanine is an open walking area exposed on one side to the baseball field. Vendors sell food and beverages on that level, and restrooms are located there. At the time of the incident, the stadium used movable vending carts for the sale of beverages because construction of the stadium had not yet been completed, and the built-in concession stands were not operational. The carts dotted the mezzanine along both the first and third base lines on the field-side of the mezzanine. The vendors stood with their backs to the diamond while the patrons faced it.

Plaintiff, who had watched the action at a railing on the first base side of the field, walked about 100 feet to the closest vending cart. Netting protects the seating area behind home plate and extends for some distance down both base lines. The beverage cart that plaintiff patronized was on the first base line, but beyond the protection of the net. In a written statement, Maisonave described the moments before the incident:

I wasn't consciously aware of where the netting was or where it ended. From the time I reached the vending cart, I had not actually watched the field; I was aware the game was being played by the crowd reaction, but I wasn't able to see the field . . . . Standing at the beverage cart before I was hit I was not thinking about the possibility of a foul ball coming at me. I didn't think anything could happen to me there.

[(Emphasis added.)]

At his deposition, plaintiff described the incident:

Q: What were you doing during that five or ten minutes? Were you trying to watch the game?

A: No, I was talking with some people on line.

Q: And did the vendors move?

A: Well, the vendor I know ducked kind of sideways because when they said look out, the last thing I saw was her moving out of the way and the ball coming.

Q: You were not aware of this ball previous to that moment? In other words, did you see the pitcher throw the ball at the batter? Did you see the batter swing at the ball?

A: No.

Q: Did you see the ball leave the bat?

A: Nothing, nothing.

[(Emphasis added.)]

The batted ball struck plaintiff in the right eye, causing numerous fractures and persistent numbness in the area of the eye, drooping of the eye, problems with his sinuses, and scarring.

Alleging negligence, plaintiff sued The Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, Inc., which leases Riverfront Stadium from the Essex County Improvement Authority, and defendant Gourmet Dining Services, which provides food and beverage services to Riverfront Stadium. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, finding that they had not breached their duty of care. In reaching that conclusion, the trial court relied on Schneider v. American Hockey & Ice Skating Center, Inc., 342 N.J. Super. 527, 533-34 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 387 (2001), which set forth a two-pronged duty of care for stadium owners and operators:

[F]irst, the operator must provide protected seating "sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion," and second, the operator must provide protection for spectators in "the most dangerous section" of the stands. The second component of this limited duty ordinarily may be satisfied by the operator providing screened seats behind home plate in baseball and behind the goals in hockey. [(Citations omitted.)]

The trial court reasoned that the provision of "at least two vending carts close to home plate and behind the screening, which plaintiff could have utilized," established that defendants had not breached their limited duty to plaintiff and, therefore, were not liable to plaintiff as a matter of law.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded. Maisonave v. Newark Bears Prof'l Baseball Club, Inc., 371 N.J. Super. 129, 134 (2004). Citing Schneider, the panel agreed that "the operators of a commercial sports facility owe a limited duty to spectators." Id. at 133 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). However, focusing on the second part of the Schneider limited duty rule, the Appellate Division stated:

When we said that the second component [of Schneider] "may be satisfied by the operator providing screened seats behind home plate in baseball and behind the goals in hockey[,]" our identification of those locations was not intended to be exhaustive nor immutable. Rather, "the measure of that duty is 'due care under all the circumstances.'" [Ibid. (citations omitted).]

We granted certification on the separate applications of defendants. 182 N.J. 142 (2004). For the reasons discussed below, we affirm and modify the decision of the Appellate Division.

In our analysis, we consider general principles of tort liability, including the business invitee rule and its application to commercial establishments. Next, we examine the limited duty rule as an exception to the business invitee rule, its origins, its application in New Jersey and other jurisdictions, and concerns about the rule. We then determine whether we should adopt the limited duty rule, and if so, to what extent it should apply to the stands and to other areas of the stadium.

II.

A.

In Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, we held that a landowner "owe[s] a duty of reasonable care to guard against any dangerous conditions on his or her property that the owner either knows about or should have discovered." 132 N.J. 426, 434 (1993) (citing Handleman v. Cox, 39 N.J. 95 (1963); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343 (1969)). This is the standard of care generally applied to business enterprises and is the default governing standard unless a more specific rule applies. Although it applied the limited duty rule, our Appellate Division recognized in Schneider that "the operator of a commercial recreational facility, like the operator of any other business, has a general duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of its patrons." 342 N.J. Super. at 534.

B.

The limited duty rule is a specialized negligence standard that has protected stadium owners and operators since the early days of modern baseball. For example, in Crane v. Kansas City Baseball & Exhibition Co., 153 S.W. 1076, 1078 (Mo. Ct. App. 1913), the court held that stadium operators must offer protected seating areas and that a spectator who chose an unprotected seat was contributorily negligent. In Quinn v. Recreation Park Ass'n, 46 P.2d 144, 146 (Cal. 1935), the court held that "[t]he duty imposed by law is performed when screened seats are provided for as many as may be reasonably expected to call for them on any ordinary occasion." (Citations omitted.) Since the early twentieth century, courts have held that "one of the natural risks assumed by spectators attending professional games is that of being struck by batted or thrown balls." Ibid. Even a brief review of several early baseball cases reveals that many courts that adopted the rule, or a version of it, based their decisions on two facts: that the danger of errant balls was common knowledge and that spectators sitting in unscreened seats assumed the risk of injury. See, e.g., Brisson v. Minneapolis Baseball & Athletic Ass'n, 240 N.W. 903 (Minn. 1932); Kavafian v. Seattle Baseball Ass'n, 181 P. 679 (Wash. 1919). Thus, the rule establishes a fact-specific standard of care for injuries caused by errant balls at baseball stadiums by accounting for the open and obvious nature of the risk that batted balls pose to fans.

In Schneider, supra, our Appellate Division endorsed the limited duty rule, explaining that stadium operators must "provide protected seating sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion." 342 N.J. Super. at 534 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Additionally, stadium operators must "provide protection for ...


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