Beanball Not Grounds for Lawsuit

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.7, September 2006,

Baseball players have long understood the unwritten code of accountability on the diamond—if your pitcher hits an opposing batter, one of your hitters might soon hear some chin music of his own. But when Rio Hondo Community College’s Jose Avila was hit by a pitch five years ago, he sought redress not on the field, but in a courtroom. His case made it all the way to the California Supreme Court this spring, before being thrown out when the court decided that being hit by a pitch is an inherent risk of playing the game.

Avila’s saga began in a January 2001 preseason game against Citrus Community College. He was hit in the head by a pitch he says was thrown in retaliation for a Citrus player’s beaning earlier in the game. The blow cracked his helmet and caused immediate pain and dizziness, and Avila claims that he’s suffered from a seizure disorder ever since.

Soon after the incident, Avila sued the Citrus Community College District, citing several complaints. They included failing to adequately control and supervise its pitcher, not providing umpires to prevent reckless or retaliatory pitching, conducting a preseason game in violation of league rules, not providing proper safety equipment, and failing to summon medical care in a timely fashion. His suit was initially dismissed by a trial court but reinstated on appeal in 2003, leading the district to ask the state Supreme Court to intervene.

In its ruling, issued on April 6, the court noted that getting hit by pitches is so common in baseball that it has its own terminology (“brushback” and “beanball,” for instance), and that many pitchers and managers openly discuss throwing at batters as a fundamental part of the sport. Therefore, the court said, even though it’s against the rules of baseball to intentionally throw at a batter, in this case, “[the pitcher’s] conduct did not fall outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport.”

Furthermore, by voluntarily participating in the game, Avila agreed to assume all inherent risks associated with his participation, including the possibility of being hit by a pitch. As for the other complaints regarding equipment, umpiring, and league rules, the court dismissed the argument that Citrus’s actions amounted to negligence—not following preseason rules, for instance, may be cause for league-imposed penalties, but it’s not a matter for the courts.

The justices also noted that allowing the suit to proceed could set a terrible precedent for all levels of baseball. “It is one thing for an umpire to punish a pitcher who hits a batter by ejecting him from the game or for a league to suspend the pitcher,” they wrote. “It is quite another for tort law to chill any pitcher from throwing inside—a permissible and essential part of the sport—for fear of a suit over an errant pitch. It is not the function of tort law to police such conduct.”