Over the last few years, Hillerich and Bradsby, the manufacturer of Louisville Slugger baseball bats, has endured much litigation. In 2009, a Montana jury awarded a family $850,000 after their son was killed by a ball struck by the aluminum bats. Last month, the company settled the claims of a New Jersey teenager severely injured in a similar accident for $14.5 million. The multi-million dollar settlement came on the heels of another $951,000 verdict from an Oklahoma federal jury.
Things weren’t looking too good for the bat manufacturer, to say the least.
In a twist of fate, however, an Oklahoma court tossed the $951,000 jury verdict just days after the massive New Jersey settlement.
The jury had awarded a 15-year old boy and his parents nearly $1 million after he was struck in the face by a line drive, causing severe facial injuries. In reaching its decision, the jury determined that the aluminum bat was defective and unreasonably dangerous because it could hit a ball faster than its wooden counterparts – a condition for which Louisville Slugger failed to warn. Moreover, it determined that the boy did not assume the risk of injury when electing to play baseball.
On Hillerich’s post-trial motions, the court held that there was “no basis for a reasonable jury to find that the bat had ‘dangerous characteristics.’” Certainly an aluminum bat can create increased bat speed, but does this necessarily mean it is more dangerous than its wooden counterpart? As Forbes writer Dan Fisher, noted:
[T]he experts who testify about the supposedly dangerous characteristics of aluminum bats are talking about a relative scale. Fewer players would be injured if Little Leaguers used foam-rubber bats, but it doesn’t reasonably follow that manufacturers of wooden bats would then be liable for imparting “increased exit speed” to the ball.
Apparently, the plaintiff also never established that the bat - and not some other extraneous factor (i.e. a good hitter) - was to blame for the injuries. As the judge noted, a “verdict may not be based on this kind of conjecture.”
The theory behind these Louisville Slugger suits is an interesting one. Undoubtedly, an expert of some sort can testify as to the increased bat speed created by aluminum bats. We imagine, however, that even a well-struck ball by a wooden bat could cause facial injuries. The only way to prevent such injuries is to use baseball equipment manufactured exclusively by NERF. Unfortunately, sport and injury often go hand-in-hand regardless of the equipment used.
The more intriguing question may be the tremendous discrepancy between the jury awards and the multi-million dollar New Jersey settlement. While every case and jury is different, damages may not be the issue – the “smallest” verdict involved a child that was killed. As Ted Frank at the Point of Law blog notes:
The fact that Oklahoma caps noneconomic damages surely made a difference here: without the threat of jackpot justice, the defendant could defend itself without fear of disproportionate liability.
A factor, to be sure.