By: Cameron Miller
One of the more unfortunate player injuries Major League Baseball (MLB) has seen in recent memory is then-Yankees’ outfielder Dustin Fowler’s significant knee tear mid-way through the 2017 season. Moments into his MLB debut in Chicago against the White Sox, Fowler attempted to catch what was ultimately a foul ball down the right field line; ranging toward the foul line, Fowler collided with the low wall separating the field from the stands, rupturing his right patellar tendon (Fowler missed the remainder of the season and was later traded to the Oakland A’s). Contributing to the injury may have been an unpadded, metal electrical box that was located in precisely the area where Fowler impacted the wall.
In December 2017, Fowler sued the White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facility Authority (ISFA), which managed Guaranteed Rate Field, in Illinois state court. There, Fowler claimed the defendants were aware of the “unreasonably dangerous and hazardous” electrical box yet “[f]ailed to take reasonable precautions to prevent persons lawfully present…to come into contact with the exposed box.” According to his complaint, Fowler:
In February 2018, the defendants removed the case to federal court (Northern Illinois district), citing preemption by Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). In March, Fowler sought remand back to Cook County (IL) Circuit Court. Interpretation of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Fowler argued, was not necessary to resolve his common law negligence claims, meaning his suit was not preempted by the LMRA. The White Sox responded that Fowler’s claims were preempted because they “require[d] interpretation of the terms of the Basic Agreement and UPC to determine the standard of care the White Sox were required to exercise in these precise circumstances.” Specifically, the club asserted that the MLB CBA’s establishment of a Joint Health and Safety Committee “lessens the scope of the White Sox’s duty” to maintain a safe playing surface. Further, the team argued, determining Fowler’s damages could only be done in consultation with Fowler’s collectively bargained Uniform Player Contract (UPC). Fowler replied that the CBA is not essential to his case in any respect; in particular, he assailed the defendant’s claim that the recommendations of the Joint Health and Safety Commission are binding on the White Sox. That Committee, Fowler explained, is merely recommendatory, leaving the White Sox free to “choose where to place, and how to protect others from the exposed metal box.”
On June 29, U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman remanded Fowler’s case to Illinois state court. In an eight-page order, the court clarified that preemption pursuant to Section 301 of the LMRA is only proper when “state law claims [are] ‘founded directly on rights created by collective-bargaining agreements, and also claims substantially dependent on analysis of a collective-bargaining agreement.” And even then, the court explained, preemption “applies only where the defendant’s interpretation of the CBA is arguable or plausible.”
The order then moved to a discussion of the parties’ claims. Feinerman summarizes Fowler’s allegation against the White Sox as a breach of the club’s “duty of care when [it] installed a hidden, unpadded box in the wall on the right field line.” The judge distilled the defendants’ response thusly:
“[A]bsent any objection from the [Joint Health and Safety] Committee, the injury that Fowler suffered when he ran into the box was not reasonably foreseeable—and therefore his negligence claim fails.”
The court patently rejected the White Sox’s defense, positing that no reasonable interpretation of the CBA could have created a belief that, barring any guidance from the Joint Health and Safety Committee, “the club could simply assume that nothing in its premises posed an unreasonable risk to players.” Rather, the court reasoned, the “intermittent and weak” nature of the Joint Health and Safety Committee meant that individual clubs were still primarily responsible for—and better positioned to ensure—the safety of their facilities.
The particular issue at Guaranteed Rate Field—the unpadded electric box—only reinforced the dispensability of CBA analysis. Because it was “hidden from players’ view” (meaning players were unlikely to bring the hazard to the attention of the Joint Health and Safety Committee) and/or would likely have been too “granular” an issue for the Committee to address, the court concluded the CBA “will not affect the White Sox’s duty of care to Fowler,” which is the primary inquiry for negligence claims in Illinois.
Feinerman also rejected the White Sox’s claim that Fowler’s damages required interpretation of his UPC, finding that UPCs “determine the club’ obligations to their own injured players, not the obligations of clubs that allegedly injure another teams’ player[.]” (emphasis in original)
Now back in Cook County Circuit Court, Fowler must show “the existence of a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty, and an injury proximately caused by that breach.” Simpkins v. CSX Transp., Inc., 965 N.E.2d 1092, 1096 (Ill. 2012). To prevail, Fowler need also establish that the harm he suffered was “reasonably foreseeable” to the White Sox and IFSA. Clifford v. Wharton Business Grp., 817 N.E.2d 1207, 1214 (Ill. App. 2004) That the White Sox owed Fowler a duty of care is unmistakable; whether that duty was breached and, if it was, whether that breach (placing a hidden, unpadded metal box on the periphery of the field) “proximately caused” Fowler’s knee injury, and whether that harm was foreseeable by the White Sox and IFSA are the critical questions yet to be answered.
Cameron Miller is a 2016 graduate of Stanford University and earned a Master's in Sports Law & Business from Arizona State University in 2017. He is the Sports Lawyers Association's Research Assistant.
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