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Dexter Fowler case sets new legal precedent for baseball injuries

It is the dream of millions of kids across the country to play professional baseball when they grow up. But can you imagine if you worked your entire life towards that dream, only to have it shattered in your very first professional game before you even got to step up once to the plate?

Such was the sad case of Dustin Fowler, a prospect who got his first shot in the MLB with none other than the Evil Empire themselves – the New York Yankees – in June of 2017. Chasing a foul ball and trying to make a play, Fowler ran at full speed into what appeared to be a padded section of wall during an away game in the ballpark of the Chicago White Sox.

However, the section of wall that Fowler unluckily found himself on a collision course for was actually an unpadded electrical box, indistinguishable from its padded wall surroundings. Fowler suffered an injury to his patellar tendon, requiring season-ending surgery and slamming the brakes on his dream that was finally becoming a reality.

Rather than wallow in despair and wonder what could have been, Fowler tackled his rehab after successful surgery and went one large step farther – he filed suit against MLB and the White Sox stadium ownership for failing to ensure a reasonably safe work environment, which ultimately caused his injury, pain and suffering and potential loss of significant income.

Taking the MLB to court

As Michael McCann points out in a recent Sports Illustrated article, professional athletes aren’t likely to pursue legal action against their employers due to a number of reasons. Perhaps they fear public backlash they might receive, perhaps they don’t want to deal with court proceedings and the disruption that could cause to their training regimens. Besides, professional athletes are paid among the highest of employees in the country and have collectively bargained for outstanding health care – so suing to receive financial compensation may not be a top priority either.

Most importantly, however, professional athletes don’t often sue following an injury because they assume the risk of injuries when they sign their contract to play professional sports. Had Fowler simply slipped while tracking the foul ball and broke his arm, he’d have no real legal recourse against Major League Baseball, as that situation is one that could be reasonably expected to happen throughout the course of any baseball game, to any player at any position.

What makes Fowler’s case unique – and why a federal judge just upheld the case’s right to proceed despite an attempt from the MLB and White Sox to have it thrown out – is because it challenges the notion of what a reasonable assumption of risk is for professional baseball players.

The defendants in the case have essentially argued that safety issues within major league ballparks are handled by a specialized safety committee that is charged with addressing potential hazards to players’ health, and that they are not liable for injuries that occur due to safety hazards that aren’t realized and addressed by the committee. However, the judge ruled in favor of Fowler – who argued that the language within the MLB’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union only states that the safety committee will address hazardous situations as they arise, and therefore are not expected to safeguard against every potential, unknown safety hazard at every ballpark.

If a player were to sue Wrigley Field because they slammed into their famous ivy-covered brick wall, they would be unlikely to succeed, as the brick walls at Wrigley are a well-established, well know feature of the ballpark that is essentially engrained into baseball’s storied history. Players could be expected to know the brick wall exists.

However, a random electrical box that has no protective padding and is placed along the same span of wall as other padded sections – and is painted the same color – is not something the average player would know about. This is partially why Fowler’s case has persisted.

What does the Fowler case mean for baseball?

No matter what the ultimate outcome of Fowler’s case, at the very least his lawsuit will put team ownership across the league on notice that they must be more aware of potential safety risks within their stadiums. Fowler suing after being injured during what could be considered the normal course of action within a game shows that special circumstances do exist where teams aren’t covered by the general assumption of risk agreed to by the athletes who play the game.

In a sense, this should have positive benefits for player safety across all sports. Employers should be obligated to provide as safe of an environment for their employees no matter what – whether it’s a small construction firm or a professional baseball team with a $200 million payroll.

As professional personal injury attorneys, we at Altman & Altman LLP have been watching this case with intrigue, as it may set a new precedent for injury liability even among the highest paid employees in the country. Whether you’re a world-class athlete or a hard-working laborer, we strive to uphold your rights and give you recourse following an injury.

If you have been injured, contact us online or call for a free consultation to go over the details of your case today at 617-492-3000 or toll-free at 800-481-6199. We are available 24/7.

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