Wild Pitch: Heaved Hot Dog Lawsuit May Impact Future Interaction with Fans

hot dog lawsuitThe Missouri Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit filed against the Royals’ baseball team for an injury caused by the team’s mascot, Slugger, during a game in 2009. The case is being watched closely by sports teams across the country because of the impact the ruling could have on the future of fan interaction.

The Incident Subject to the Hot Dog Lawsuit

John Coomer, of Kansas City, Missouri, was a spectator at a Royals game in September 2009 when he was struck in the eye by a foiled hotdog that had been tossed into the stands by the Royals’ mascot. Coomer had to undergo two surgeries on his eye because of the injury which has permanently impacted his vision. The first surgery was to repair his detached retina. The second surgery was to remove a cataract that developed and to then implant an artificial lens.

The Hot Dog Lawsuit

The first jurors to hear the case two years ago sided with the Royals, stating that Coomer was at fault because he wasn’t adequately paying attention to his surroundings. A legal standard known as “the baseball rule” (also called the no-duty rule) was factored into the original decision, declaring that spectators are subject to inherent and unavoidable risks during in-game events. The rule protects sports teams from being sued for fan injuries caused by occurrences such as foul balls or broken bats.

In the appeal, however, the question arises as to whether or not injuries caused by mascots count as “in-game events.” The appeals court stated that while being struck by a baseball is a common-sense risk fans assume when attending a game, being hit with a hot dog is not.

The Royals are arguing that the Hot Dog Toss has been a popular fan attraction since 2000, making it just as much of a game experience as the game itself.

The Supreme Court heard all arguments in September of last year but has not indicated when the issue might finally be ruled upon.

How Could This Affect the Fan Experience?

Few cases, if any, have addressed the legal duty or obligation that a team mascot has to the fans.  At a time when competition for fandom is fierce and teams are trying to entice spectators to pay for tickets instead of watching games on television, this ruling could have a huge impact on the in-game experience.

A ruling in the Royals’ favor would assert that mascots are an integral part of the in-game experience, setting a significant legal precedent that could thwart future lawsuits.  It would extend the no-duty rule beyond the activities on a field, court or rink, to include injuries caused by mascots and other personnel that teams employ to engage fans.

On the other hand, a ruling in Coomer’s favor, that assigns at least partial blame to the Royals’ mascot, could force teams to reevaluate in-game events and promotions to increase the safety its fans.

How much risk should spectators assume at sporting events?  Do teams owe any duty to spectators?  The ruling on this case could define the answers to these questions.