Massachusetts Homeowners May Be Held Liable For Injuries Caused By Backyard Softball Game

softball injuries.jpgMassachusetts homeowners may be liable for injuries to their guests caused by sports equipment that they provide other of their guests, according to a ruling issued by the Appeals Court last week. In Judge v. Carrai, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that a lawsuit can proceed against party host/homeowners for injuries that were sustained when one of their guests was hit in the back of her head by a softball hit by a teenaged guest.
In the case, the homeowners permitted some teens and one adult to play softball with aluminum bats in the cramped confines of their small backyard. All of the equipment that was used belonged to the homeowners. At some point in the game, a very hard foul ball was hit against the house that nearly broke a skylight. The players continued on with their game and subsequently a foul ball hit Maria Judge in the back of her head while she was sitting on the homeowners’ back porch approximately 15-20 feet away from the game.
The trial court granted the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, saying that the homeowners owed no legal duty to protect their guest from the batted ball, even after it became clear from the first foul ball, that the game posed a risk to guests on the porch. The Appeals Court disagreed and reversed the trial court.
If the guest had actually been playing in the softball game, this would have been a simple case where the guest would have been thought to have assumed the risk of injuries arising from the softball game. But because the guest was simply a bystander to the softball action, the Appeals Court had to clarify some principles of premises liability.
The Court noted that, as a general matter, “an owner or possessor of land owes to all persons lawfully on the premises a common law duty of reasonable care to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition.” But, generally speaking, a land owner’s duty of reasonable care means a duty to protect guests from dangers in the property and not injuries caused by third parties (such as other guests on the property). In order for a land owner to be held liable to a guest for injuries caused by a third party, there must be some special legal relationship between the land owner and the guest and Massachusetts courts have normally not recognized being a social guest as forming such a special relationship. Thus, Massachusetts courts have declined to hold homeowners liable for injuries caused to their guests by other guests who bring alcohol or fireworks to a party.
But the Appeals Court found those other cases relating to fireworks and alcohol brought on the premises to be distinguishable from the case before it because, in this case, the homeowners themselves furnished the aluminum bats, balls and gloves. Thus they found it more analogous to cases where the homeowners themselves furnished alcohol or cases against the Red Sox brought by spectators injured by foul balls.
I think the Appeals Court reached the right result here but, despite the favorable ruling for the plaintiff, she will still have an uphill climb before a jury. If a jury concludes that the guest was more than 50 percent at fault – either for keeping her back turned to the softball action or for continuing to remain seated on the porch after the first foul ball – she will recover nothing. Whatever the outcome, I’m sure the homeowners will be investing in a $4.99 Wiffle Ball Bat and Ball set.