Major League Baseballs Liability for Injuries Resulting from Shattering Maple Bats

When players or spectators are injured at sporting events, a common and often successful defense alleged by the team or stadium owner is that the person injured assumed the risk of injury; in other words that the injury is considered to be an acceptable risk understood and known to the injured person. Another common defense is that the defendant did not have any notice of the dangerous condition prior to the occurrence so as to permit it the opportunity to correct or warn about it. But with a great number of maple bats literally shattering (a much more dangerous phenomenon than a more traditional ash bat breaking) causing injuries to uniformed personnel and fans seated in the stands, it is questionable whether these defenses would be successful. Baseball will not be able to claim in court that it was unaware of the hazards caused by maple bats.

Major League Baseball (“MLB”) has been collecting breakage information for years from club equipment managers and sees the scary highlights nightly. The issue has become of such concern that MLB’s newly-formed Safety and Health Advisory Committee held its first meeting yesterday via conference call in New York to discuss player and fan safety, including the danger of being hit with remnants of a broken bat. Members of the committee, which includes a mix of players as well as executives from MLB, individual clubs and the players’ union, expressed their concerns over the issues and concurred that they require prompt consideration and action.

The Safety and Health Advisory Committee formalized the next steps, which include consulting with bat manufacturers and experts in the field, conducting field studies, conducting laboratory tests of bats and gathering information about protective measures in Major League ballparks. The committee plans to investigate how companies are approved to make major league bats, and to possibly strengthen the approval process.

At present, to get approval, a company must provide a bat sample, must have a major leaguer who uses the bats, must carry $1 million in insurance and must pay a $5,000 entry fee. There are more than 30 approved companies. Sam Holman, the founder of the Original Maple Bat Corporation and considered to be the pioneer of maple bats, has suggested that companies may be using inferior wood.

As fate would have it, on the same day of the Safety and Health Advisory Committee’s initial meeting, plate umpire Brian O’Nora was hit in the forehead by the barrel of Miguel Olivo’s bat — which had shattered — and had to leave the game between the Rockies and Royals at Kauffman Stadium.

Maple has replaced ash as the wood bat of choice in the Major Leagues. About 60 percent of Major League players use maple bats instead of ash because the wood is stronger and lasts longer.

A 2005 study commissioned by MLB and the union revealed that ash bats do not typically shatter into many pieces while maple bats have a tendency to explode. The maple bats, because of a denser cell structure, do not crack like ash bats but break apart, with the jagged barrel piece typically flying up to 100 feet in any direction: toward the pitcher, infielders, base coaches, dugouts and toward fans.

Some solutions to the problem besides strengthening MLB’s bat approval process include extending netting from behind the plate down the first and third base lines as they do in Japanese ballparks, changing the allowable bat specifications, such as barrel size, handle size or the minimum weight relative to the bat’s length, and banning the use of maple bats completely.

Extended netting is what the National Hockey League did beginning with the 2002-03 season to protect fans seated above the goals from soaring pucks, but not until a fan died after she was hit during a game at Nationwide Arena at Columbus, Ohio, on March 16, 2002. Earlier that season at Chicago’s United Center a fan struck by a puck during a game suffered brain damage. Following the death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil in Columbus, the NHL quickly conducted a study and three months later decided to place black mesh protective nets above and around the high Plexiglas at each end of the rink.

Players now seek bats with a thinner handle and a larger barrel, which gives the hitter more snap in his swing, but creates a tremendous imbalance. Some players even shave that thin handle to make it slimmer.

Other recent incidences of serious injury involving a broken maple bat include one on April 25 at Dodger Stadium, when a maple bat used by Colorado’s Todd Helton shattered. The barrel spun into the stands behind the Rockies’ third-base side dugout and struck a fan sitting four rows back in the face, shattering her jaw. About 10 days earlier, Pirates coach Don Long suffered a sliced face when a maple bat splintered at the handle.

In recent years right-handed pitcher Rick Helling, while pitching in the minor leagues, was impaled in the left arm by a broken bat, a 15-inch shard penetrating three inches into his arm. MLB has made equipment changes for safety reasons as recently as this season. Last year, Mike Coolbaugh, coaching first base in the Rockies’ Minor League system, was killed when he was hit in the head by a line drive.

This year, MLB mandated that all base coaches at the Major and Minor League levels wear protective helmets when they are in their positions on the field.

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