To what extent does a business have a moral obligation to protect its customers beyond the extent to which it is required to under the law? Professional baseball teams across the United States have been wrestling with this classic ethical question this year following a series of high-profile incidents in which fans—sometimes as young as four years old—were severely injured after being hit by a foul ball.
From a legal perspective, baseball teams have a fairly limited obligation to protect their fans from such injuries. Dating back to the early 1910s, U.S. courts have held that fans generally assume the risk of any injuries they may sustain from balls or bats leaving the field of play. These rulings have been based on the premise that such danger is intrinsic to the game and thus should be obvious to even those spectators with little previous exposure to the sport. Indeed, so long as a team installs netting protecting fans seated in the “most dangerous area” of its ballpark—a section historically defined to include only those seats located immediately behind home plate—then the team cannot be held legally liable should a fan sitting outside the protected area be injured by a foul ball. This has generally been true regardless of how quickly the ball entered the stands, or even how young the injured spectator may have been.
Despite being largely immune from legal liability for foul-ball injuries, teams in Major League Baseball (MLB) have nevertheless proactively sought to provide greater protection to their fans in recent years. Back in 2015, for example, MLB made a league-wide recommendation encouraging all of its teams to extend their protective netting to shield any seat located within 70 feet of home plate. More recently, following the recent spate of incidents in 2019 , several MLB teams have announced plans to extend their protective screening much further down the foul lines, with the Chicago White Sox going so far as to become the first MLB team to install netting all the way from home plate down to each foul pole above the outfield wall. It remains to be seen if other MLB teams will follow suit.
Whether these decisions are being driven by ethical considerations or consumer demand is uncertain (one recent survey, for instance, shows that 78 percent of fans support the installation of additional safety netting). Most likely, it is some combination of the two. What is clear, however, is that teams are choosing to extend their protective netting in spite of—rather than because of—the law.