The recent death of “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, as well as last month’s column, got me thinking of some (somewhat) sports-related cases I’ve been involved in and the legal issues they entailed.
My “Marvin Hagler” case actually had to do with a defective washing machine, which vibrated so much during operation, it would move around violently. My client requested the business he purchased it from replace it, but they only agreed to repair it, trying unsuccessfully on several occasions. One day, as my client tried to turn off the maniacal machine, it lunged forward, knocking him off his feet and hurting his back. We brought a personal injury claim against the business.
The lawyer hired to represent the business was Matthias “Matt” Reynolds, an experienced senior partner at “one of northern New England’s largest and most dynamic law firms,” as they billed themselves. He was a brilliant lawyer, but also loved life and had a great sense of humor. He was known for taking full advantage of cases that had witnesses in desirable locations, so that when he traveled to take their depositions, he could mix business with pleasure; word had it that he even took a deposition by the side of a pool.
Reynolds humorously dubbed my client’s washing machine the “Marvin Hagler washing machine.” Although my client’s claim may sound a little far-fetched, it illustrates the important legal principle of foreseeability. In general, people and corporations have no duty to refrain from negligent conduct if it is not foreseeable that it could cause harm to someone else. For example, if I leave my car key in the ignition, I am being careless; if a thief steals the car and gets into an accident with another driver, that driver cannot hold me liable, because their injury was not foreseeable, according to our Supreme Court.
That legal principle is based on a 1928 case, known as Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad. A passenger waiting to board the train was hurt when a railway porter dropped a package handed to him by another passenger, which, unbeknown to the porter, contained fireworks. The fireworks exploded on the track, knocking over scales on the platform, which hit and injured Mrs. Palsgraf. The judge on the case held that even though the porter’s conduct may have been negligent, the railroad could not be held liable, because it was not foreseeable that the employee’s negligence would hurt someone in this manner.
In my “Marvin Hagler” case, my client’s injury was foreseeable, because he had previously reported the washing machine coming in contact with him to the seller, and their employees’ negligence caused it to happen again.
Foreseeability is also important in some sports injury cases. I recently represented a college baseball player who was hit in the face by a batted ball, while pitching during an indoor practice. Although he was pitching from behind an “L” screen, his head apparently extended beyond the screen in his follow-through motion (he was unaware this was happening), therefore the screen did not protect him. The college argued that it should not be held liable, because it was not foreseeable that pitchers would fail to stay behind the screen, and therefore the coaches had no duty to warn them or to make sure the screen was in proper position.
This argument was contradicted by evidence from the coaches themselves, saying they frequently warned players to stay behind the screen (although my client, a freshman who was inexperienced in using the screen in this manner, had not been warned), and from other coaches, including some who had posted videos on You Tube, that pitching from behind an L screen can be extremely dangerous if players have not been carefully instructed how to do so safely.
I should emphasize, however, “inherent risk,” doctrine makes a successful claim in a case like this quite rare. Most of the time, participants in organized sports acknowledge that some risks are inherent to the sport and cannot be prevented, even with reasonable precautions, which bars such claims. Spectators at baseball games hit by foul balls, golfers hit by errant drives, and others in similar situations cannot sue, no matter how severe their injuries.
Although you may hear claims of too many frivolous lawsuits, rest assured that the law is not without common sense, especially here in New Hampshire. For example, the ski industry is so important to New Hampshire’s economy, that the legislature passed a statute preventing lawsuits for any injuries caused by the “inherent risks” of skiing—icy trails, rocks, snowmaking equipment, etc.