The Kansas City Royals are in the World Series for the first time since 1985, but the team’s success is not the only reason they have been in the news this year. The Royals are also the defendant in a lawsuit that has the potential to dramatically change the fan experience at ballparks across America.
Here are the facts of the case as described in this summer’s Missouri Supreme Court ruling in Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corporation:
Coomer is a longtime baseball fan and frequent spectator at Royals games in Kauffman Stadium. On September 8, 2009, he brought his father along to watch the Royals host the Detroit Tigers. Only about 12,000 people were on hand to watch the game because it had rained most of the day. With such a small crowd, Coomer and his father left their assigned seats early in the game and moved to empty seats six rows behind the visitor’s dugout.
Shortly after Coomer changed seats, Sluggerrr mounted the visitor’s dugout to begin the “Hotdog Launch,” a feature of every Royals home game since 2000. The launch occurs between innings, when Sluggerrr uses an air gun to shoot hotdogs from the roof of the visitor’s dugout to fans seated beyond hand-tossing range. When his assistants are reloading the air gun, Sluggerrr tosses hotdogs by hand to the fans seated nearby. Sluggerrr generally tossed the hotdogs underhand while facing the fans but sometimes throws overhand, behind his back, and side-armed.
Coomer estimates that he attended 175 Royals games before this game in September 2009. He admits that he frequently watched Sluggerrr toss hotdogs from the roof of the visitor’s dugout and, on September 8, he saw Sluggerrr mount the dugout to begin the Hotdog Launch. Coomer and his father were seated approximately 15 to 20 feet from Sluggerrr, directly in his view. After employing his hotdog-shaped airgun to send hotdogs to distant fans, Sluggerrr began to toss hotdogs by hand to fans seated near Coomer. Coomer testified that he saw Sluggerrr turn away from the crowd as if to prepare for a behind-the-back throw, but, because Coomer chose that moment to turn and look at the scoreboard, he admits he never saw Sluggerrr throw the hotdog that he claims injured him. Coomer testified only that a “split second later … something hit me in the face,” and he described the blow as “pretty forceful.”
Coomer did not report this incident to the Royals when it happened because he did not realize he had been injured. Instead, he stayed for most of the rest of Tuesday’s game (a thrilling 7-5 effort that snapped the first-place Tigers’ six-game winning streak) and even returned to Kauffmann Stadium the following night to witness the Royals’ further 5-1 drubbing of the Tigers. Thursday morning, however, Coomer felt he was “seeing differently” and something “wasn’t right” with his left eye. The problem progressed until, approximately eight days after the incident, Coomer saw a doctor and was diagnosed with a detached retina. Coomer underwent surgeries to repair the retina and to remove a “traumatic cataract” in the same eye.
Coomer reported his injury to the Royals in September 2009, eight days after it occurred. In February 2010, Coomer filed this lawsuit…
At trial, the jury found in the Royals’ favor, determining Coomer was 100% at fault for his injury. Coomer appealed, and the Missouri high court reversed the jury’s verdict, ruling that the trial court had erred in allowing the jury to decide whether Coomer had assumed the risk of getting hit by a hot dog while attending the game.
In the past, this Court has held that spectators cannot sue a baseball team for injuries caused when a ball or bat enters the stands. Such risks are an unavoidable – even desirable – part of the joy that comes with being close enough to the Great American Pastime to smell the new-mown grass, to hear the crack of 42 inches of solid ash meeting a 95-mph fastball, or to watch a diving third baseman turn a heart-rending triple into a soul-soaring double-play. The risk of being injured by Sluggerrr’s hotdog toss, on the other hand, is not an unavoidable part of watching the Royals play baseball. That risk is no more inherent in watching a game of baseball than it is inherent in watching a rock concert, a monster truck rally, or any other assemblage where free food or T-shirts are tossed into the crowd to increase excitement and boost attendance.
Accordingly, Coomer’s claim is not foreclosed by the assumption of the risk doctrine. Instead, it is up to the jury to decide: (1) whether Sluggerrr injured Coomer by hitting him with a hotdog, and (2) whether Sluggerrr was negligent in doing so.
And thus it is not just the outcome of the World Series that the Royals will play a part in this year. The Royals will, with this case, set the precedent for mascot behavior.
Click here to read the Missouri Supreme Court’s full opinion. (It’s worth it to hear the court recount Sluggerrr’s testimony regarding his hot dog throwing training and technique.)