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Liability for Spectator Injuries: An Overview

The liability of property owners for injuries that occur to persons on their property is largely a creation of state law and court decisions. For this reason, the nature of a property owner’s duties to individuals on the owner’s property varies among states. Such duties may involve issues regarding the owner’s actions and/or the owner’s failure to act. Usually several factors and the particular facts of the injury control the result.

Business Owner Liability

In virtually all jurisdictions, property owners (if also business owners) that invite persons onto their property for profit have a duty to protect them from harm, if the owner:

  • Knows or should know of a danger and any unreasonable risk of harm
  • Should expect that those invited onto the property (invitees) will not discover or realize the danger, or will not protect themselves
  • Fails to exercise “reasonable care” to protect invitees

“Reasonable care” commonly depends on the circumstances and the law of the jurisdiction. Usually, however, the owner will not be liable for injuries caused by any activity or condition that is known or obvious to the invitees (i.e., apparent to a reasonable person). An exception to this exists when the owner should anticipate that the invitee may be harmed despite knowledge of the danger.

Spectators at Sporting and Other Events

In light of these general principles, property/business owners that offer or allow events for spectators must usually protect them from and warn them of risks and injuries that might easily occur during the sporting or entertainment event. Some events (i.e., automobile races) must comply with specific safety guidelines imposed by governments and/or professional associations. Concert halls, arenas and clubs must usually ensure that applicable maximum occupancy regulations are not exceeded and that all building and fire code requirements are met. Those injured as a result of a property/business owner’s failure to comply may have a claim for such injuries.

Sporting events in particular often give rise to dangers for a spectator, such as being hit by a foul ball at a baseball game. The danger of being hit by a foul ball is often considered an “open and obvious” danger, and some courts have held that baseball spectators “assume” that risk. Other courts have held that a duty still exists for the owner to protect against such a foreseeable danger.

In response, most ballpark owners post warnings about the danger and provide some sort of shield behind home plate. Some courts have held that such actions are sufficient to fulfill the owner’s duty as a matter of law. A 1992 Illinois case held, however, that whether the warnings and shield fulfilled the duty is a question of fact and must be decided by a jury on a case-by-case basis.

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