Robert Hilliard Cries Foul Against Major League Baseball

The Texas attorney is handling a lawsuit that would force ball clubs to do more to protect fans

Published in 2017 Texas Super Lawyers — October 23, 2017

When a 1-year-old girl was hit in the face by a 105 mph line drive at Yankee Stadium Sept. 20, news of the incident was sobering—but hardly unexpected—to Robert C. Hilliard.

The Corpus Christi attorney is handling a California lawsuit seeking class action status on behalf of season ticket holders who bought seats along first and third base lines, past the netting. The suit accuses the MLB of failing to protect fans.

“The purpose of the class action was to compel MLB to change its rules and practices regarding protective netting at ballparks and extend the netting from foul pole to foul pole,” says Hilliard, who practices class action and consumer law at Hilliard Martinez Gonzales.

“It seems, because of the way the need for netting at games has traditionally been viewed—[that] it’s the fan’s responsibility to pay attention—that teams and ball parks were slow to wake up to the life-threatening danger and easy, inexpensive fix. The ‘duh’ factor regarding safety netting is pretty apparent to everyone now,” he says.  “The little Jacobson girl at the Yankee game was the last straw for the consciousness of the American baseball crowd. Now we see anger’s groundswell.” 

So far, Hilliard’s proposed class action—also being handled by his colleague Marion Reilly and by Seattle firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro]—has faced an uphill battle. The district court dismissed their complaint, saying that the plaintiffs have not so far been injured and that the league presented evidence that the likelihood of that happening is small. The attorneys have appealed to the 9th Circuit, which will hear oral argument in December.

Historically, the MLB has been protected by the “small print on the back of the ticket: ‘MLB not responsible,’ as well as antiquated assumptions of risk,” Hilliard says. “That is now not going to be the rule going forward.”

Hilliard is hopeful that the current public outrage will bring change.

“The little girl's injuries are a perfect example of what we do not want to have happen at ballparks. Why must a young girl get struck in the face before MLB takes action?” he asks. “The game has changed—it’s faster, filled with more distractions for fans, and the players are hitting more powerfully than ever before. MLB must acknowledge the risks fans face, and take action to minimize injuries.”

The girls’ father, Geoffrey Jacobson, told The New York Times that his daughter had suffered facial fractures, bleeding on the brain, and impaired vision that may or may not improve.

After declining to comment on the netting issue, the Yankees announced Oct. 1 that they would expand the netting at Yankee Stadium and at their spring-training park in Tampa. Several other teams said they, too, would expand the netted area.

The netting controversy has been ongoing for years. After a serious fan injury in Fenway Park in 2015, all MLB teams installed netting to the near end of the dugouts. Ten of the 30 teams expanded the netting into the outfield. 

“Hopefully,” says Hilliard, “the lesson is that next time—on the next life-threatening issue that becomes apparent—this prehistoric slowness will not happen.”

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