KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If it had been a foul ball or broken bat that struck John Coomer in the eye as he watched a Kansas City Royals game, the courts likely wouldn’t force the team to pay for his surgeries and suffering.
But because it was a hot dog thrown by the team mascot – behind the back, no less – he just may have a case.
The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing whether the “baseball rule” – a legal standard that protects teams from being sued over fan injuries caused by events on the field, court or rink – should also apply to injuries caused by mascots or the other personnel that teams employ to engage fans. Because the case could set a legal precedent, it could change how teams in other cities and sports approach interacting with fans at their games.
Coomer, 53, of Overland Park, Kan., says he was injured at a September 2009 Royals game when the team’s lion mascot, Sluggerrr, threw a 4-ounce, foil-wrapped wiener into the stands that struck his eye. He had to have two surgeries – one to repair a detached retina and the other to remove a cataract that developed and implant an artificial lens. Coomer’s vision is worse now than before he was hurt and he has paid roughly $4,800 in medical costs, said his attorney, Robert Tormohlen.
Coomer’s lawsuit seeks an award of “over $20,000” from the team, but the actual amount he is seeking is likely much greater.
Jackson County jurors who first heard the case two years ago sided with the Royals, saying Coomer was completely at fault for his injury because he wasn’t aware of what was going on around him. An appeals court overturned that decision in January, however, ruling that while being struck by a baseball is an inherent risk fans assume at games, being hit with a hot dog isn’t.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in September, but didn’t indicate when it might issue its ruling.
Few cases had addressed the level of legal duty, or obligation, a mascot owes to fans, so Coomer’s case is being closely watched by teams throughout the country, Tormohlen said.
“If a jury finds that the activity at issue is an inherent and unavoidable risk, the Royals owe no duty to their spectators,” Tormohlen said. “No case has extended the no-duty rule to the activities of a mascot.”
The Royals have argued that the hot dog toss has been a popular fan attraction at Kauffman Stadium since 2000 and is as much part of the game experience as strikeouts and home runs.
From mascot races and T-shirt cannons to free Wi-Fi and stadium sushi stands, teams have done everything they can to convince fans that the live experience is worth the high ticket and concession prices and is better than watching games on TV.