INDIANAPOLIS | In contrast to the frigid chill in the air and piles of snow on the ground, baseball -- for many, the epitome of summer -- will be the focus of oral arguments Thursday at the Indiana Supreme Court.
At issue is the extent to which baseball teams, in this case the Gary SouthShore RailCats, should be expected to protect ballpark spectators from the dangers posed by foul balls hit into the stands.
On May 23, 2009, Juanita DeJesus was sitting with three friends at a RailCats game when the second batter hit a pop-up foul that struck her in the face, fracturing several bones and causing blindness in her left eye, according to court records.
She sued the RailCats' parent company in 2011 alleging the team was responsible for her injuries because it failed to install protective netting for spectators seated between first and third bases.
Lake Superior Judge Calvin Hawkins initially allowed DeJesus' lawsuit to proceed, but he was overruled last February in a 3-0 decision by the Indiana Court of Appeals that threw out her case.
The appeals court said DeJesus received three warnings from the team about the dangers of foul balls -- on the back of her ticket, from a sign in her seating section and through a pregame announcement.
It also noted DeJesus frequently attended RailCats games so she knew foul balls regularly fly into the stands, and said she could have purchased net-protected seating behind home plate.
In its 14-page ruling, the appeals court reviewed 150 years of similar baseball decisions from around the country and found no court had ever concluded a spectator could be unaware that foul balls are part of baseball, potentially dangerous and require that fans pay attention and take steps to protect themselves.
That changed one week later when the Idaho Supreme Court declined to uphold the "Baseball Rule," where a team generally is not responsible for game-caused spectator injuries, and permitted Bud Rountree, who lost an eye after getting struck by a foul ball, to sue the Boise Hawks baseball team.
In its 5-0 decision, the Idaho court determined Rountree should be permitted to sue the team because the Idaho Legislature is best suited to decide the extent to which baseball teams have a duty to protect their fans, and Idaho lawmakers have yet to limit that liability.
Rountree's lawsuit against the Boise baseball team still has not gone to trial, but the Idaho ruling could influence the Indiana Supreme Court to reach a similar conclusion.
Like Idaho, the Indiana General Assembly has never decided whether a baseball team can be held liable for spectator injuries. Illinois law explicitly prohibits baseball fans from suing teams for game-caused injuries in nearly all circumstances.
A decision by Indiana's high court likely will be issued several months after Thursday's hearing.