Watch Out For Soccer Balls, They Can Be Dangerous

All lawyers know, from first year torts class, that if you are hit by a baseball at a baseball game, you are unlikely to have any claim against the operator of the baseball stadium.  There's a well developed body of law to that effect.

Today in Allred v. Capital Area Soccer League, Inc., the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the rules of the game may be different when it's a soccer game being played.  The Allred case is apparently one of only three cases in the country that deals with injuries suffered by spectators from soccer balls kicked into the stands.

The Plaintiff in Allred was attending a women's professional soccer game at State Capital Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.  She was sitting in the stands behind one of the goals, and was hit in the head by a ball during warmups, when "many balls were directed towards the nets in a relatively short period of time."  Op. at 4..  She suffered "substantial head injuries."   Op. at 2. 

The trial court granted Defendant's Motion to Dismiss on Plaintiff's claim of negligence, but the Court of Appeals reversed.  Judge Steelman began the unanimous opinion of the Court by observing that there were no reported cases in North Carolina involving injuries to spectators at soccer games, but that the cases involving baseball games "have been uniformly decided against the spectator, either on the basis that the stadium operator was not negligent or that the spectator assumed the risk of being hit by a baseball."  Op. at 5.

The Court's analysis then turned to two issues: the duty owned by the sports facility operator to the spectator, and whether the Plaintiff had assumed the risk by attending the game.

On the point of duty, it is established that an operator of a stadium or arena has "no duty to protect a lawful visitor against dangers which are either known to him or so obvious and apparent that they reasonably may be expected to be discovered."  Op. at. 7. In baseball cases, Judge Steelman said "it has been accepted as a matter of law that a patron's being struck in the stands by an errant baseball was an inherent and obvious risk of attending the game."  Op. at 8. 

But that's not necessarily true of soccer games, probably because soccer doesn't have the long and established history in the United States that baseball does.  The Court held that there was nothing at the pleadings stage to establish that the Plaintiff had such "particular knowledge of the sport of soccer" to know that a kicked soccer ball was a danger to spectators.  Plaintiff in fact alleged flat out that she "had no knowledge or underlying information that there was a significant risk of being struck by a soccer ball when attending such events at this facility."  Op. at 12.

On the point of assumption of the risk, the Court held that this defense is established when there is "(1) actual or constructive knowledge of the risk, and (2) consent by the plaintiff to assume that risk."  Op. at 10. The Court held that there was nothing in the Complaint that established either actual or constructive knowledge of the danger, and again relied on Plaintiff's pleading allegations that she was simply too unfamiliar with the game of soccer to know of the danger posed by an errant shot on goal. 

The Court also discussed a claim by Plaintiff that the Defendant had been negligent by failing to put up protective netting behind the goals.  The rule in baseball cases is "that the owner of a sports facility is not required to provide screening for all seats, only a portion of the seats."  Op. at 15.  Again observing the dearth of law in soccer cases, the Court held that the need for netting would depend on "the protection customarily provided in facilities designed for the viewing of [the] particular sport."  Op. at 16.  That was a question inappropriate for resolution at the motion to dismiss stage.

Notwithstanding its reversal of the decision of the trial court, the Court sent a clear signal to the Plaintiff that she might not be successful at the summary judgment stage.  It held:

Finally we note that, while plaintiffs' allegation of no knowledge of the danger based on not having been to an event at this particular stadium is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss at this stage of the proceedings, it may not be sufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment or a motion to dismiss at trial. Whether the plaintiff had knowledge of the danger is not limited to her experience at this particular stadium, but would encompass her knowledge of soccer in general, and of the sport derived from attendance at other venues.

Op. at 13.

The only two other reported cases involving injuries to soccer spectators, according to the Court, are Sutton v. E. New York Youth Soccer Ass'n, 8 A.D.3d 855, 779 N.Y.S.2d 149 (2004); and Honohan v. Turrone, 297 A.D.2d 705, 747 N.Y.S.2d 543 (2002).  Both bear out the Court's point about the prospects for the Plaintiff, as both ended with summary judgment for the defendants.

The picture at the top is of my son, Dash.  Having attended nearly every one of his soccer games, I know that soccer balls struck with a human foot can travel, with high velocity and potentially injurious consequences, into the stands. Just like baseballs, but bigger.

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Ken Houghton - December 16, 2008 6:44 PM

So let me see if I have this straight: if I bring someone over from, say, Benin or Kuala Lampur who has never seen baseball before and they get hit by a baseball, they have no chance of not being summarily dismissed in a NC court, but someone sitting behind a goal when soccer balls come flying at her is deemed to have standing to sue in North Carolina because she was too stupid to think that maybe Doing a W (i.e., ducking) might be a good idea.

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