Target Practice


Bukowski v. Clarkson University (New York)
(A university baseball pitcher was injured by a line drive while participating in a practice, and he sued the university and his head coach;  the court found that the pitcher had assumed the inherent risk of being hit by the baseball and affirmed the trial court’s directed verdit in favor of the defendants.)

The plaintiff was injured after throwing a fastball to a batter during “live” indoor practice without a protective screen.  The batter struck the ball which hit the plaintiff in the jaw and broker his tooth.  After the lawsuit was filed, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied.  At trial, plaintiff argued “that the risk of being hit by a batted ball was enhanced due to the multicolored pitching backdrop and low lighting at the indoor facility, which made it harder to see the white ball, and the failure to use an L-screen.”

At the close of evidence, the trial court granted defendants’ motion for a directed verdict “on the ground that plaintiff assumed the commonly appreciated risk in baseball of being hit by a line drive.”  Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Court explained, “An educational institution organizing a team sporting activity must exercise ordinary reasonable care to protect student athletes voluntarily participating in organized athletics from unassumed, concealed, or enhanced risks.”  The Court further noted that “[i]f the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.”  Additionally, the Court noted that primary assumption of the risk can also encompass “risks involving less than optimal conditions.”

The Court made a distinction between “accidents resulting from defective sporting equipment and those resulting from suboptimal playing conditions.”  The conditions of the indoor facility did not create a dangerous condition beyond the usual dangers inherent in the sport.  The Court also pointed out that the plaintiff was unable to present evidence that the coaching staff had violated any established safety protocol or the NCAA Rulebook.

Referring to the plaintiff’s vast experience and knowledge relating to baseball, the Court stated that he was “aware of the obvious risk of pitching without the protection of an L-screen, and he had the opportunity to observe the lighting in the facility as well as the color of the pitching backdrop prior to his accident.”  Plaintiff was aware of the practice set up and voluntarily elected to participate.

As the Court so succinctly stated, “Almost every day, we are reminded of the injury risks attendant to participation in organized sports.”  The Court expressed awareness of the need to protect the “enormous social value” of sporting activities.  In this specific instance, the Court recognized that the university “located in upstate New York, should be able to allow its sports teams to practice indoors during the cold winter months without fear of liability for inability to replicate the ideal conditions of the outdoor spring season.”  Plaintiff’s accident was nothing more than a “luckless accident arising from . . . vigorous voluntary participation in competitive . . . athletics.”

NOTE: The ruling seems to be the proper outcome under the law.  The only question is why is took so long to get to the result.  In light of the initial denial of the motion for summary judgment, the defendants were required to prepare for, and endure, a trial through the presentation of plaintiff’s evidence before getting a result which seems to have been appropriate at the motion stage.  Of course, it is unclear from the published opinion what evidence and information was presented between the time of the motion and the directed verdict that ultimately convinced the Court.

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