Rethinking Assumption of Risk and Sports Spectators


In 2002, the puck-related death of thirteen-year-old Brittanie Cecil at a National Hockey League game spurred calls for improved safety measures in professional sports arenas. However, common law tort principles—under which injured fans’ claims have traditionally failed—are unlikely to provide the impetus for any such change. Under the “baseball rule,” stadium owners owe the “limited duty” of providing screened seats for as many fans as can reasonably be expected to desire them. However, some courts also applied assumption of risk as an affirmative defense without explicitly differentiating between it and the baseball rule. Uncertainty over the extent to which the two doctrines overlap posed a particular problem in jurisdictions in which the abolition of contributory negligence partially overruled the assumption of risk defense.

Recently, in Knight v. Jewett, a plurality of the California Supreme Court held that assumption of risk now operates as an entirely duty-based doctrine. Subsequent California appellate courts opine that Knight replaces the limited duty of the baseball rule with a doctrine in which stadium owners owe fans a mere duty not to increase a sport’s inherent risks. In this Comment, David Horton contends that a close examination of Knight and its underlying principles casts doubt on this conclusion. Even though Knight substitutes a duty-based regime for cases previously resolved under the rubric of assumption of risk, its approach is entirely consistent with the application of the duty-based baseball rule to cases of fan injury. To conclude otherwise treats fans and athletes identically, neglecting both the vast difference between their participatory roles, and modern tort law’s penchant for allocating the burden of injury prevention entirely to business entities instead of to consumers. Yet, the baseball rule itself allows stadium owners to discharge their legal obligations by taking a single, anachronistic safety measure, thus creating little incentive to examine new methods of keeping fans safe.

Horton concludes that stadium owners should instead owe fans a duty of reasonable care. This standard would force stadium owners to link safety measures to the specific manner in which fans are hurt and to update their precautionary measures as sports and technology evolve. In addition, the doctrine of comparative fault would assign liability in accordance with each party’s blameworthiness, thus ameliorating concern that a duty of reasonable care would greatly increase stadium owners’ liability for fan injuries.

About the Author

Chief Articles Editor, UCLA Law Review, Volume 51. J.D. candidate, UCLA School of Law, 2004; B.A., Carleton College, 1997.

By uclalaw