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Vol. 9 - Issue 5
August 20, 2020

 

Little League Mishaps Lead To Big League Lawsuits
 
Randy Maniloff

 

This week the pandemic will take down another great American tradition.  Howard J. Lamade Stadium, in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, will be quiet.  The Little League World Series has been cancelled.  For the first time in nearly 75 years, there will be no display of some of the best young baseball players the world has to offer.

But there is another side to little league baseball.  Sometimes the games are more Bad News Bears than the seemingly flawless ones in the annual showcase. The sport combines young and inexperienced players, equipment that can double as deadly weapons and coaches who may exhibit an unhealthy level of emotion during games. Translation - things can go awry on the diamond.         

And when that happens, the kids in pinstripes sometimes call grown-ups in pinstripes.  Put me in coach, a lawyer is ready to play.

For decades, judges have been required to call balls and strikes in disputes over little league mishaps.  The cases cover all manner of misadventures on the field.  But, despite their variety, the decisions offer a lesson for would-be plaintiffs.    

In West v. Sundown Little League of Stockton (2002), a California appeals court concluded that ten-year-old Brandon West could not maintain an action, against his little league organization and coach, for a serious eye injury when struck by a fly ball.  The unfortunate incident occurred during a practice drill when young Brandon lost the ball in the sun.  West argued that his coach knew or should have known that catching pop-ups in the sun was a skill beyond his level. But the court concluded otherwise. Pushing players beyond their abilities, the appellate court observed, is a coach’s job. West struck out as the court determined that “[l]osing a fly ball in the sun and being hit by it is an inherent risk of baseball assumed by all players whether it happens during little league warm-ups or during Game 7 of the Major League World Series.”

The sun also took the heat for a little league injury is Balthazor v. Little League Baseball, Inc. (1998). Eleven-year-old Ryan Balthazor was struck by a wild pitch during a little league game. The incident took place at 6:10 p.m. An almanac indicted that that sun set three minutes later. The lad filed suit, arguing that diminished lighting increased the risk of being hit by the pitch.  So the game should have been suspended when sunset approached. But that argument was a whiff. It wasn’t dark when the injury occurred, the California appeals court noted, and “changing lighting conditions are inherent in the sport.” The court also rejected Balthazor’s “even more tenuous” argument that the pitcher should have been removed from the game because he had struck two other batters earlier: “Accuracy in pitching, especially from a teenager, has never been a prerequisite to being allowed to pitch.”

It seems that pop-fly drills can be risky business.  Nine-year-old Nicholas Rothenberg was struck in the mouth by a fly ball that had been hit by his coach during practice. A North Carolina appeals court, in Loftis v. Little League Baseball, Inc. (2005), concluded that the wannabe Willie Mays could not recover for his injuries. Nicholas argued that the injuries would not have happened if his coach had followed the advice on page 47 of a little league training manual addressing how to perform a pop fly drill.  But the court was unconvinced that such causation existed.  There was no evidence that the coach received the manual, would have read each section or was required to comply with the drills outlined.                    

It is hard to imagine a tyke having a worse start to his little league career than ten-year-old D.V.  He was struck in the mouth by a line drive -- hit on the third pitch of his first-ever little league practice.  Until that point, he had never participated in a baseball activity on a baseball field.  In a suit brought for injuries, it was alleged that the coach was negligent for placing the newbie in the “highly skilled” shortstop position. But the New York trial court in Lerman v. Little League Council of N.Y. City (2018) disagreed. Even as green as D.V. was, he still had a basic understanding of how the game was played and assumed the risk of being struck by the ball.  As for the coach’s decision to place D.V. at shortstop, that the was immaterial, the court concluded.  The risk of being hit by a batted ball is present at every position.     
   
It is not always the players who are injured during games. In Hills v. Bridgeview Little League Association (2000), the Supreme Court of Illinois had before it the question whether a little league organization was liable for serious injuries sustained by a coach who was viciously beaten by the opposing team’s coach during a game. The impetus for the attack was an effort by one coach to influence the first base umpire’s calls. The court concluded that the injured coach could not collect a $600,000 jury verdict as the little league association had no duty to control the assailant-coach.

There’s no crying in baseball.  And those injured on the little league field won’t get far if they do it to a judge.

 

Randy Maniloff is an attorney at White and Williams, LLP in Philadelphia and an adjunct professor at Temple University's Beasley School of Law. 


 
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