A Pittsburgh boy who sustained an brain injury during a Little League game in 2015 won a $1.7 million dollar verdict this week. When he was 11 years old, Zachary Hoffman was struck in his left temple by a foul ball while standing inside a first base dugout. Little League regulations mandate that the 11-foot fencing gap between the backstop and the dugout that allowed the ball to hit Hoffman should never have been there. The settlement will be paid in part by the Avonworth Athletic Association, the Quaker Valley Recreation Association, and Sewickley Borough, organizations responsible for the field and for the wellbeing of the children on it.
Hoffman’s story is, unfortunately, a tragic one. Since the boy was rushed to the hospital and treated for a skull fracture and a brain bleed, he has not, according to loved ones, been the same. The injuries triggered mood swings, an extreme change in behavior, extreme pain, and trouble with impulse control.
The three organizations that ultimate lost the suit each took a slightly different angle while trying to avoid paying out. The Avonworth Athletic Association treated the injury like a freak accident, saying that none of the coaches present had ever seen a foul ball fly that way. Avonworth also became party to the kind of what-about-ism usually reserved for cable news when they tried to say that as long as their conduct didn’t fall below the standards of similar organizations, they shouldn’t be able to be sued as a non-profit. Quaker Valley’s attorneys explained that getting hit by a fly ball is a “common, frequent and known risk of playing the game of baseball.”
This argument clearly did not fly.
Cases like Hoffman’s aren’t totally unheard of and have spurned more widespread debate about how to keep kids safer while they watch and play baseball. Many MLB teams, though they haven’t been mandated to do so, have announced plans to expand netting in order to protect children. Those changes have come after a young girl was hit in the face by a 105-mph foul ball during a Yankees game last year. Little League has also implemented a new bat standard meant to make it such that metal bats mimic the strength of wooden ones. This move is meant to curb injuries by lowering the speed at which balls can be hit.
Getting hit by a ball is most definitely “a common risk” when playing baseball, but that doesn’t mean that the risk can’t be largely mitigated. Common risk and acceptable risk are not the same thing. Just ask the Hoffmans.