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If a Foul Ball Hits You, Does the Team Owe You Anything?

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On August 29, former Phillie and current Florida Marlins infielder Greg Dobbs hit a kid in the face with a line drive foul ball while playing the Mets at Citi Field.

The 12-year-old fan, from Long Island, suffered from severe internal bleeding, had to have had two blood transfusions and four CT scans, and spent five days in the intensive care unit at the hospital.

Dobbs visited the kid in the hospital, gave him the glove used in the game and a signed bat, and called the boy’s family several times to check on his condition. This is all well and good. But shouldn’t the team or Major League Baseball be doing a little more—like covering the kid’s medical bills?

According to the law, no.

While being a baseball fan can be a dangerous prospect*, in the last few decades the courts have pretty consistently come down in favor of the teams, leagues, and stadiums when it comes to lawsuits regarding spectator injuries.

Most of these cases get dismissed under the doctrine of assumption of risk, a defense in tort law that prevents a plaintiff from recovering damages if the defendant can show that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly assumed the risks inherent to the activity they were participating in when they got hurt. In the case of baseball, this means that spectators are usually considered to be assuming the risk that a ball, bat, glove or outfielder may leave the field and hit them.

It’s only when “the plaintiff introduces adequate evidence that the amusement facility in which he was injured deviated in some relevant respect from established custom will it be proper for an ‘inherent-risk’ case to go to the jury,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court explained in one case.

This wasn’t always the norm, though, and from the dawn of major league sports up until the mid-20th century, injured fans usually had the law on their side.

Game Change

In the latter half of the last century, more and more cases were decided in the favor of the teams and leagues. The judges’ decision in the 1986 case of Neinstein v. Los Angeles Dodgers sums up the reasoning behind the shift:

“As we see it, to permit plaintiff to recover under the circumstances here would force baseball stadium owners to do one of two things: place all spectator areas behind a protective screen thereby reducing the quality of everyone's view, and since players are often able to reach into the spectator area to catch foul balls, changing the very nature of the game itself; or continue the status quo and increase the price of tickets to cover the cost of compensating injured persons with the attendant result that persons of meager means might be 'priced out' of enjoying the great American pastime. To us, neither alternative is acceptable. In our opinion it is not the role of the courts to effect a wholesale remodeling of a revered American institution through application of the tort law.”

These days, to cover their butts on the assumption of risk, most, if not all, leagues, teams and stadiums now place disclaimers and assumption of the risk statements on the back of each ticket. There are signs around the stadium, and announcements are made before and during games. Even with this precaution taken, having to go to court in the first place is a drain on time, energy and money. Teams try to further insulate themselves from lawsuits by taking precautions—like having ballgirls hand used balls to fans instead of lobbing them.

Meanwhile, in the courts, determining what constitutes risks “inherent to the game” is the main issue that has to be decided. The courts have long held that the team is in the clear for a spectator struck by a batted ball, whether it happened during the course of the game or in pregame batting practice. But what about a broken bat?  Bat shards enter the seating areas less often than fouls, certainly, but it’s become increasingly common. Courts have found no fault on the defendant’s part in several cases.

What if You Were Buying Peanuts and/or Cracker Jack at the Time?

While judges have generally become more broad in their definitions of what constitutes common and inherent risks of the game, injuries that happen away from the field usually fall outside a fan’s assumed risks. For example, fans have sued and won lawsuits after being struck by an iron entrance gate (Murray v. Pittsburgh Athletic Co.), falling down a staircase, falling into a hole while going to a concession stand (Louisville Baseball Club v. Butler) and getting hit by a ball while getting refreshments.

If you want to learn more about the dangers of the great American pastime, check out Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007, a detailed catalog of deaths and fatal injuries that happened during the playing, officiating or watching of baseball – including a whole section on deaths by commotio cordis, awful–sounding concussions of the heart caused by balls hitting a particular spot in the chest at the exact moment between heartbeats.

* There’s no centralized tracking of spectator injuries, but one estimate given by people who study these sorts of things is 2,540 injuries per year nationwide. Another study estimated 35 injuries - by foul balls alone – per million spectators per year.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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