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Sciarrotta v. Spectrum

April 10, 2008

DENISE SCIARROTTA AND PETER SCIARROTTA, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
GLOBAL SPECTRUM, COMCAST SPECTACOR CO., MERCER COUNTY IMPROVEMENT AUTHORITY, MERCER COUNTY NEW JERSEY, ABC COMPANIES, D/B/A SOVEREIGN BANK ARENA, XYZ PARTNERSHIPS, JOHN DOES AND JANE DOES, (1-10) SAID NAMES AND DESIGNATIONS BEING FICTITIOUS, D/B/A TRENTON TITANS AND/OR D/B/A JOHNSTOWN CHIEFS, AND TRENTON HOCKEY CLUB, L.L.C.,EAST COAST HOCKEY LEAGUE, INC., D/B/A EAST COAST HOCKEY LEAGUE, INDIVIDUALLY, JOINTLY, AND/OR IN THE ALTERNATIVE, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 392 N.J. Super. 403 (2007).

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 appeal, the Court examines the limited duty rule, which applies to sports venues and addresses the peril of objects leaving the field of play that may injure spectators. According to the limited duty rule, a sports venue owner or operator has satisfied its duty of care to spectators if it provides screened seating that is sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion and if the owner or operator also provides protection in the most dangerous sections of the stands. The Court then considers whether the limited duty rule applies to practice or "warm-up" periods that occur before a game is actually played, and whether there is a duty to warn spectators about the risk of objects leaving the field of play.

On January 4, 2003, Denise Sciarrotta attended a professional hockey game between the Trenton Titans and the Jonestown Chiefs at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton. Her seat in the stands was six or seven rows from the ice and above the Plexiglas protective barrier mounted on the side boards that surround the rink. She also was outside the areas of the rink surrounding the goals that are protected by netting that extends above the Plexiglas. During the warm-up period, when each team had as many as twenty-five pucks in use, an unidentified player took a practice shot at the goal. His puck struck a goalpost and caromed above the Plexiglas, injuring Sciarrotta. Sciarrotta filed this action alleging negligence by Global Spectrum, Comcast Spectator Co., Trenton Hockey Club, LLC, the Trenton Titans, the Johnstown Chiefs, and the East Coast Hockey League, Inc., among others, either as the operators of the arena or as the owners, operators, or responsible parties for the teams playing on the ice that night.

The trial court granted a motion for summary judgment by the defendants, finding that they had fulfilled their obligations under the limited duty rule because the arena provided protective seating for spectators who might reasonably have requested it and because Sciarrotta presented no evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the operators provided protection for spectators in the most dangerous sections of the stands.

Based on the differences between the activities that occurred during warm-ups and games, the Appellate Division reversed, concluding that there were questions of fact to be determined as to whether more adequately protective steps were available and should have been taken to minimize the risk of harm from the specific activity at issue. 392 N.J. Super. 403 (2007).

HELD: The limited duty rule, which concerns the provision of screened seating in certain areas of sports venues, applies to all activities on the field of play, including pre-game warm-ups. If a sports venue owner or operator complies with the limited duty rule, it has satisfied its duty of care to patrons in the stands and no action in negligence will lie for the peril of objects leaving the field of play. Furthermore, the limited duty rule does not impose a separate duty to warn of the risk of objects leaving the field of play.

1. The limited duty rule applies to sports venues in respect of a specific peril, that of objects leaving the field of play that may injure spectators in the stands. Under the rule, a sports venue owner or operator that provides screened seating (1) sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion, and (2) in the most dangerous section of the stands, has satisfied its duty of care. The rule applies not only while the game itself is in progress, but whenever spectators are located in the stands. (Pp. 10-11).

2. In Schneider v. Am. Hockey & Ice Skating Ctr., Inc., 342 N.J. Super. 527 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 387 (2001), the Appellate Division held that a hockey rink operator has a limited duty to provide a protected area for spectators who choose not to be exposed to the risk posed by flying pucks and to screen any spectator area that is subject to a high risk of injury from flying pucks-a duty which may be satisfied by the provision of screened seats behind the goals. The Appellate Division then rejected the plaintiff's negligence claim because, among other reasons, no evidence was offered that the unprotected seats at the side of the rink posed an unduly high risk of injury from flying pucks. Here, it is undisputed that Sciarrotta was seated in an area on the side of the rink that was not within the corners or end zones. As such, the area was protected by the side boards topped by Plexiglas but not by protective netting. Sciarrotta's seat was above the Plexiglas partition and she did not request a seat behind the protective netting. The facts of this matter present a textbook case for the application of the limited duty rule. (Pp. 11-13).

3. The Court rejects Sciarrotta's argument that her situation should be exempt from the application of the limited duty rule because she was injured during warm-ups when multiple pucks are on the ice, rather than during a game when only one puck is on the ice. Although this Court geographically restricted the scope of the limited duty rule in Maisonave v. Newark Bears Prof'l Baseball Club, Inc., 185 N.J. 70 (2005), by limiting its application to injuries to spectators that occur in the stands, that restriction was rejected by the Legislature in the New Jersey Baseball Spectator Safety Act of 2006. In the same statute, the Legislature also defined a professional baseball game as including pre-game activities. Therefore, the Court sees no reason to restrict the scope of the limited duty rule solely to the temporal limits of the game itself. The purpose of our tort laws is to encourage reasonable conduct and, conversely, to discourage conduct that creates an unreasonable risk of injury to others. The reasonable conduct to be encouraged here underlies the limited duty rule itself: added protection for those who are reasonably anticipated to request it as well as for those who, absent a request, nevertheless are located in an area of particular and enhanced danger. That standard of reasonableness cannot be transformed into some other, different standard simply because the game itself has not yet started, has started but play is not immediately developing, or has recently ended. The Court reaffirms that, in respect of the peril from objects leaving the field of play, the limited duty rule sets forth the standard of care professional ice hockey rink owners or operators owe to spectators when they are located in the stands, regardless of the goings-on within the ice rink. (Pp. 13-17).

4. Finally, the Court rejects Sciarrotta's argument that the defendants had a duty to warn her of the peril of pucks leaving the ice rink so that she could make an informed decision as to whether to assume that risk. The imposition of different duties of care for the same peril in the same location would confound the core purposes of tort law. (Pp. 17-20).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the judgment of the Law Division dismissing plaintiff's complaint with prejudice is REINSTATED.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rivera-soto

JUSTICE LONG, filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion, in which JUSTICES ALBIN and WALLACE join, asserting that a posted warning advising of the danger of flying pucks and of the right to request protected seating is in full conformity with our prior jurisprudence on the subject of duty and is an essential element of the limited duty rule.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA and HOENS join in JUSTICE RIVERASOTO's opinion. JUSTICE LONG filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion in which JUSTICES ALBIN and WALLACE join.

Argued February 20, 2008

The limited duty rule is unique. It applies to sports venues in respect of a specific peril, that of objects leaving the field of play that may injure spectators in the stands. It provides that a sports venue owner or operator that provides screened seating (1) "'sufficient for those spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire protected seats on an ordinary occasion[,]'" and (2) "'in the most dangerous section' of the stands," has satisfied its duty of care to those spectators. Schneider v. Am. Hockey & Ice Skating Ctr., Inc., 342 N.J. Super. 527, 533-34 (App. Div.) (quoting Akins v. Glen Falls City Sch. Dist., 424 N.E.2d 531, 533 (N.Y. 1981)), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 387 (2001); Maisonave v. Newark Bears Prof'l Baseball Club, Inc., 185 N.J. 70, 78 (2005) (quoting Schneider, supra, 342 N.J. Super. at 533-34), superseded by statute, New Jersey Baseball Spectator Safety Act of 2006, L. 2005, c. 362, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-43 to -48.

This appeal requires that we address two aspects in respect of the limited duty rule. First, we must consider whether the limited duty rule applies to the practice or "warm-up" periods that occur before the game is actually played and, second, we must define whether the limited duty rule also includes a duty to warn spectators in respect of objects leaving the field of play. We conclude that the limited duty rule applies to all activities on the field of play, including pre-game warm-ups. We further conclude that the limited duty rule itself does not encompass a separate duty to warn of the peril of objects leaving the field of play. Thus, if a sports venue owner or operator complies with the limited ...


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