At ballparks, danger in the stands

Braves, Falcons refuse to detail safety precautions in new stadiums

A 13-year-old girl hit by a hockey puck in Columbus, Ohio. A firefighter who tumbled over knee-high railing at a baseball game in Arlington, Texas. A Tennessee man who fell over a 33-inch railing during a college football game inside the Georgia Dome.

And now, Greg “Ace” Murrey, a 60-year-old insurance agent who became the latest casualty inside America’s sporting arenas Saturday night, after he plummeted nearly 50 feet onto concrete steps at Turner Field.

The incomplete list of fan deaths doesn’t begin to address the number of people who have left ballparks, football stadiums, hockey arenas or NASCAR race tracks bloodied, bruised – or worse — after being struck by objects catapulted into the stands.

Turner Field, which has had three fatal falls since 2008, including one suicide, is a case study in grave injury. Additionally, a six-year-old girl’s skull was fractured in 30 places and she suffered traumatic brain injury in 2010 after being hit by a foul ball there.

The trail of blood and tears has led into courtrooms from Georgia to California, and has forced a broader conversation about the responsibilities of team ownership in keeping fans safe during one of this country’s most popular leisure activities – attending live sporting events.

Robert M. Gorman, co-author of a book detailing deaths in baseball stadiums, said the incidents of serious injury at ballparks far outnumber those involving death. The biggest danger, he said, are balls or bats flying into the stands.

A batted ball can travel at more than 100 mph, giving fans distracted with cell phones, loud music or mundane conversations little time to react, he said.

“If you look at the millions of people that go to games, the likelihood of a serious injury is limited. But why should anyone be injured?” Gorman said. “It’s like a product defect. If a car has a defect, the company has a recall to fix the problem.

“Baseball’s product defect is people being injured by balls or bats, and nobody is stepping in.”

Both the Braves and Falcons have new stadiums, partially funded with public money, that are under construction and scheduled to open in 2017. Officials from both teams refused to answer questions from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how the new stadiums will be safer than their current facilities.

The Braves issued a four-paragraph statement Monday night related to Murrey’s death, but did not provide specifics other than to say fan safety is “paramount” and they work to ensure it by “ongoing planning and training” and by “maintaining and updating” safety equipment. The statement also said the team is working with its architects to “ensure SunTrust Park has effective safety protocols in place at the time of opening.”

A Braves spokesman initially told the AJC that team officials would respond to written questions, which were sent Monday. On Tuesday, the spokesman said the team would not comment.

Among the questions submitted to the Braves: what are railing heights planned in the new stadium compared to Turner Field; how far down the baselines will protective netting extend in the new stadium; is the team revisiting either of those issues as a result of the fatalities and injuries at Turner Field; and why the team installed safety netting in dugouts to protect players but not over dugouts to protect fans?

The Falcons also declined to comment about safety measures at their new $1.4 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The AJC had previously reported that the railing at the Georgia Dome — where the team currently plays — is 33 inches, or seven inches more than minimum heights dictated in the International Building Code. Minimum railing height on aisles is 42 inches, which the dome matches exactly.

Steven Adelman, a venue safety expert and Arizona attorney , said the code for railing height was set in 1927, and is inadequate for modern fans, who he said are bigger and more likely to stand, yell and react emotionally during games.

Witnesses said Murrey stood and lustily booed Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez before losing his balance in the second row and falling over the rail.

“It’s fair to say a standard that is almost 90 years old may not be enough,” Adelman said.

Questions about railing heights and safety nets are generally left up to stadium owners and can vary based on local or state ordinances, according to Benjamin Flowers, an associate professor in the school of architecture at Georgia Tech.

Some fans are resistant to safety netting because it limits their interactions with players or eliminates their ability to catch a foul ball, Flowers said.

“Every time you remind them of the safety features you remind them of the risk you are protecting them against,” he said.

The National Hockey League in 2003 required all arenas to install netting at either end of rinks, one year after Brittanie Nichole Cecil was hit in the temple by a puck and died.

But Major League Baseball has reacted much more slowly to the issue of fan deaths and injuries, said Nathaniel Grow, an associate professor of legal studies at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. Grow said that’s because courts have not held baseball teams liable for injuries to fans hit by balls or bats since at least 1913, under what is known as the “Baseball Rule.”

“Teams currently have little financial motivation to take greater precautions to avoid fan injuries, as they are not legally responsible for any injuries that do occur,” Grow said. “But they could potentially see the demand for some of their most expensive seats decline should they install an additional barrier between fans and the field.

“Until courts begin to consistently hold teams liable for fan injuries, MLB is unlikely to require that additional netting be installed in its parks.”

The Georgia Court of Appeals took a step in that direction last year, when it refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the Braves after the 2010 incident in which the six-year-old girl’s skull was shattered. The Braves argued that the case should be dismissed because of the Baseball Rule.

The team had “no duty as a matter of law to protect a spectator at a baseball game from being hit by a foul ball,” or if that duty did exist it was “limited to protecting the seats behind home plate and protecting a sufficient number of those seats to accommodate the reasonably anticipated number of requests for protected seats,” legal documents show. The ruling sent the case back to state court for adjudication, where it is pending.

Part of the Baseball Rule also relies on the fact that there is a warning on the back of all major league tickets saying fans assume all risk. Similar warnings are flashed on the scoreboard during games, reminding fans to pay attention.

MLB has filed a brief in support of the Braves in that case. Mike Moran, the attorney representing the girl’s father, declined to comment for this story.

A Bloomberg Business investigation last year found that an average of 1,750 fans are hurt every year by batted balls at Major League Baseball games — about twice every three games, and more often than batters are hit by pitches.

The Bloomberg story, published Sept. 9, 2014, quoted Braves’ third baseman Chris Johnson as saying: “It happens every game — somebody gets hit. Whether it’s a bad one or not, somebody gets hit in the stands every single game.”

A federal class-action lawsuit in California seeks to force baseball to extend protective netting to each foul pole and force the league to study the rate of spectator injuries and where they occur.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the league is already performing such a study. During an Aug. 27 press conference, Manfred said the league is studying variations in ballpark design that could affect netting, where balls and bats enter the stands most often and different types of netting materials.

He said the league wants to make a recommendation to team owners in November and “and give people an opportunity to make changes for next year if we decide changes are necessary.”

Reva Ezell doesn’t hold out much hope. Ezell says she was blinded in one eye and has undergone multiple facial surgeries after being struck by a foul ball in 2011 at Turner Field.

“No, the Braves are not focused on fan safety, and I doubt seriously that the new stadium will show changes,” she said in an email to the AJC. She argued teams need to do a better job of educating fans about potential risks.

“If you’re in the flight path and you know you don’t have a chance in hell of catching the ball, duck down. Cover your child’s body with your own. Then duck.”

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