Baseball injuries can happen on any play. What happens when the ballpark itself contributed to, or even caused, an injury?
Therein lies the pivotal question in former San Francisco Giants outfielder Mac Williamson’s lawsuit against China Basin Ballpark Company (CBBC), the owner and operator of Oracle Park. Williamson sued CBBC last week in San Francisco Superior Court for premises liability and negligence.
The case centers on Williamson sustaining concussion-related injuries when the former Wake Forest star collided headfirst into the left field wall line during a game against the Washington Nationals on Apr. 24, 2018. Williamson was chasing a fly ball and appeared to lose his balance as he tumbled over an on-field bullpen mound.
Williamson began to experience concussion-related symptoms—disorientation, dizziness, and nausea—that same evening. As often occurs with concussions, Williamson’s symptoms would worsen as days passed. He then failed the concussion protocol and was placed on the 7-day disabled list (now called “injured list”). Although Williamson returned to play in 23 games in May and June, he struggled with vision problems and motion sickness. He was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and missed the remainder of the 2018 season.
Williamson struggled the next year. He bounced between the big leagues and the minors and had stints with the Giants and Seattle Mariners, hitting .156 in 144 big-league plate appearances. He later toiled with the Samsung Lions of the KBO League and the Washington Nationals organization. Williamson didn’t appear in a game in 2020. At age 30, the Giants’ 2012 third-round pick found himself out of baseball.
Williamson’s attorneys—Randy Erlewine and Michael Levinson—contend that Oracle Park’s on-field bullpen mound presented “an unreasonable and unnecessary risk of harm.” They depict this “on-field hazard” as exacerbated by the close proximity of walls and the lack of warning track or other marker. As a general matter, sports facilities owe players, fans and other invited guests a duty to warn of dangers.
Erlewine and Levinson insist that CBBC knew of “numerous instances of players falling over” bullpen mounds. The attorneys cite five players—Michael Saunders, Bryce Harper, Hunter Pence, Stephen Cardullo and Eduardo Nunez—as falling between 2014 to 2017. They also claim that, in 2018, only three MLB ballparks had positioned their bullpen mounds on the field. The mounds in Oracle Park have since been moved to behind the outfield wall, off the field of play.
As told by his attorneys, Williamson received an apology from then-Giants owner Peter Magowan. They say Magowan, who passed away in 2019, told Williamson he was sorry for what happened.
Williamson is latest player to sue over premises safety
Several players have recently sued over injuries purportedly caused by field conditions.
In 2018, a St. Louis jury awarded former NFL running back Reggie Bush $12.5 million. While returning a punt in St Louis’ Edward Jones Dome, Bush suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear after slipping. Bush had been pushed out of bounds onto concrete—the same concrete that, a week earlier, had caused quarterback Josh McCown to slip and bang his shoulder. The jury concluded the concrete presented a non-obvious and non-avoidable danger.
The role of hidden hazard is also crucial in an ongoing lawsuit brought by Oakland Athletics outfielder Dustin Fowler. In the first inning of his MLB debut in 2017, Fowler collided with an out-of-sight, unpadded metal electrical box located between a railing and outfield wall in Guaranteed Rate Field. The collision ruptured the patellar tendon in Fowler’s right knee. Fowler sued the Chicago White Sox for negligence. The box, Michael Sorich and other attorneys for Fowler argue, represented a “hidden and undetectable hazard” that was or should have been foreseeable to ballpark operators. The case continues in Cook County Circuit Court.
CBBC’s likely defenses
In the coming weeks, CBBC will answer Williamson’s complaint and build a defense. There are a range of possibilities.
First, CBBC could insist that Williamson’s legal claims are preempted by collectively bargained grievance procedures and labor law.
The collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLBPA contains provisions that compel players to grieve (arbitrate) before they can turn to the courts. Article XIII of the CBA is also relevant. It creates a joint MLBPA-MLB safety and health advisory committee for identifying “healthful working conditions.” If the committee didn’t flag the mounds as a concern, its omission could reduce the scope of CBBC’s potential liability.
Likewise, CBBC could maintain that Williamson’s claims are preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). In certain instances, the LMRA—a federal law that governs the legal relationship of unionized workers—preempts state law claims, particularly those related to collectively bargained terms. The LMRA might also supply grounds for CBBC to remove (transfer) Williamson’s case to federal court.
Second, CBBC might contend that Williamson’s recovery is properly resolved through MLB health care and long-term disability policies and workers’ compensation insurance. Workers’ comp can extinguish an employer’s liability for on-site injuries.
Third, CBBC could insist that the mounds represented an open and obvious condition. Unlike a hidden electrical box obscured by an outfield wall, the mounds were in plain sight and had been there since Oracle Park opened in 2000. Williamson was in his fourth season with the Giants, unlike Fowler—who was playing in his first big league game, and at a foreign ballpark. CBBC might argue that Williamson’s experience with Oracle would assume the risk.
Fourth, CBBC might repel Williamson’s suggestion that many players had fallen over the mounds. His attorneys name a handful of players and incorporate quotes from players who describe the mounds as dangerous. But CBBC might offer outfield play data. The data could indicate the danger was minimal or no greater than that posed by ordinary ballpark features.
Fifth, CBBC could stress that courts generally deny the admissibility of “subsequent remedial measures.” CBBC relocating the bullpen mounds could be viewed as such a measure.
If Williamson establishes liability, the court would determine a monetary amount to reflect his pain and suffering and harm to his career. Williamson’s attorneys insist that his injuries deprived him of “tens of millions of dollars” in projected earnings. The complaint filed in court also claims he was, in April 2018, “one of the best power hitters in Major League Baseball.”
CBBC would likely dismiss these characterizations as wildly exaggerative.
Take the depiction of Williamson as an elite power hitter. During his first three MLB seasons (2015-2017), Williamson hit a total of nine home runs over 234 plate appearances. He also spent most of those seasons in the minors. It’s true, as Williamson’s lawyers point out, that he began the 2018 season on fire—his OPS was a Bonds-like 1.105. Perhaps a few months shy of his 28th birthday, Williamson, whose lawyers also emphasize had retained “swing whisperer” Doug Latta to revamp his swing, had morphed into an All-Star. But CBBC would stress that Williamson’s torrid start occurred over a mere five games. Had he remained healthy, Williamson might have regressed to the norm of a part-time player.
Both sides would retain expert witnesses, such as former general managers, scouts and agents, to opine on Williamson’s likely career trajectory—both with and without the injury. That trajectory would determine how much money the injury cost him.
A case that could take years and might end in a settlement
As the Fowler litigation highlights, sports-based liability cases can linger in court for a while. The coronavirus pandemic has also delayed court proceedings.
Yet to the extent CBBC is concerned about the eventual risk of pretrial discovery—where officials would be subject to depositions and the sharing of sensitive emails, including those concerning ballpark safety—a settlement might become an attractive option.
The matter is also likely not entirely between Williamson and CBBC. Williamson’s claims probably interact with CBBCs insurance policies, and their providers might play a key role in the litigation.