Fan Injuries at Football Games Raise Questions About Stadium Liability

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 6, 2012

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As professional and college football returns, hundreds of thousands of spectators will flood stadiums across the country each weekend to support their teams.  Most fans will enjoy the game responsibly, but some will allow a mix of emotion and alcohol to get the better of them and engage in foolish, harmful, and reckless behavior.  While obnoxious, will usually only result in severe annoyance for fellow patrons in their vicinity, or the occasional minor injury.

Recently, however, the mix of alcohol and sporting events has led to tragic fan fatalities at both professional and college football games.  During a pre-season NFL game in Houston, Texas a fan died after falling 60 feet off of an escalator going from the upper level to the lower.  The next day at a college football game in Atlanta, Georgia a 20 year old fan fell over a 33” high railing while celebrating a touchdown.  These accidents come on the heels of a lawsuit against the San Francisco 49ers and their stadium seeking damages for injuries incurred during a brawl between fans during a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. 

Injuries resulting from fan behavior at sporting events raises an interesting legal discussion about whether or not the team or venue can be sued for damages.  On one hand, basic premises liability law places a heavy burden on venues like football or baseball stadiums to provide a safe environment for fans who pay to see games.  Any business that welcomes consumers of its product onto its property must take reasonable care to prevent injuries.

While stadiums have a duty to ensure the safety of their fans, how far does that duty extend when a fan’s own unreasonable behavior creates unexpected injury?   The fan falling to his death during the Houston pre-season game fell after he tried to slide down a handrail on an escalator.  The fan dying from a fall in Atlanta during the college football game had been drinking and was celebrating recklessly.  Fans injured during the brawl at the San Francisco vs Oakland preseason game in 2011 were fighting amongst each other.

Given these facts, it is easy to question whether or not the team or stadium owners should be held legally responsible.  In each of the cases mentioned above, alcohol contributed to the poor decision making that led to injury.  The stadium did not force the fans to drink alcohol, and, arguably, cannot reasonably monitor every fan in a stadium of thousands to ensure they have not consumed such a quantity of alcohol such that they are a danger to themselves and others. 

What about responsibility for the injuries to fans who were injured as a result of unreasonable behavior by other fans?  The fan who died during the college football game at the Georgia Dome injured another fan when he landed on top of him after falling from 30 feet.  Can the fan who was landed upon sue the stadium to recover damages for his injuries?  Anytime a fight breaks out amongst fans, innocent bystanders are at risk for flying punches or debris, should the stadium be liable for any injuries to them?

The answers are unclear, and each case may be different.  Personal injury lawyers and judges analyze each individual scenario for any failure by stadiums to keep fans safe.  Stadiums are expected to take measures to prevent injury and violence, but are not necessarily liable for the unreasonable and alcohol induced behavior of certain patrons.  Ultimately, the legal analysis will have to determine if the stadium did not have adequate security measures in place to prevent injuries that it should have prevented, and there is not an easy right answer that covers every case.  Stadium safety can be reasonable and still fail to prevent injuries to drunk patrons.

If there are legal cases against the stadiums after these incidents, the outcome could shape how everyone experiences sporting events in the future.  If fan injuries and violence grows to become a serious and reoccurring problem, stadiums may be expected to take action to curb or ban alcohol sales and increase security measures.  After a Texas man fell over a railing to his death at a baseball game last year, the ballpark raised the height of safety railings to increase safety.  Further, many stadiums currently restrict the time fans may spend in the parking lot before and after games, and cease alcohol sales well before the games end in an effort to curb alcohol induced violence.

If fans continue to exhibit reckless and injurious behavior, measures may get even more strict.  Stadiums are faced with the difficult balance of providing a fun environment for those who can enjoy it responsibly, and keeping the area safe from those who can’t.

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