Not too long ago, we reported on the decision of an Oklahoma federal court to toss a $951,000 jury verdict against Hillerich and Bradsby, the manufacturer of Louisville Slugger baseball bats. As you may recall, 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. The court held, however, that there was “no basis for a reasonable jury to find that the bat had ‘dangerous characteristics.’”
In an unpublished decision, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant Hellerich’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. In a well-written opinion, the Court examined the plaintiff’s theory that the bat was unreasonably dangerous because it hit a ball “too fast.” In order to recover on such a theory, logically the plaintiff would need to show the the speed of a ball off of an “ordinary” bat versus the speed of the ball off of the bat at issue. Because the plaintiff produced no objective evidence of either component, the Court held that the district court judge did not err in correcting the jury’s verdict on defective design. The opinion can be found at Yeaman v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co., No. 12-6254 (10th. Cir. June 30. 2014).
While this case involves a much different set of facts and rests on a different theory of recovery, it is an interesting contrast to the recent flying hot dog opinion in which the court held that the risk of being hit by a flying dog was not inherent to baseball and, thus, a baseball team could not be shielded from liability. The risks of being injured by a ball struck by a bat are clearly inherent to the game. This Louisville Slugger case, on the other hand, attempted to establish that the bat was somehow unreasonably dangerous beyond those inherent risks. An interesting theory, to be sure. While the jury may have bought it, the court saw otherwise.