Sports franchises on the other end of litigation when fans hurt other fans

Nobody said spectator sports are completely safe. Just ask the poor fan who died Sunday after she was hit by a tire that broke loose from a dragster after it wrecked at a National Hot Rod Association race in Arizona.

But even in less fuel-charged sports, fans can get hurt. When an injury becomes serious, lawyers get involved. And sport franchises can find they are just another business facing litigation from an unhappy customer.

Major Tampa Bay teams have had their share of injured spectators. In recent legal cases, it is not the foul ball or splintered bat, hockey puck or stick, football or thundering linebacker that caused any damage.

It was another fan.

In August, with the Boston Red Sox playing at Tropicana Field, Lauren Layton and her husband of Tampa were seated near the third-base line. Lauren was sitting in Seat 9 in Section 119, Row W when Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria hit a pop foul.

Layton watched the ball sail well past her seat and turned back to the game. The ball, however, ricocheted in her direction. Layton says an unknown man seated behind her tripped as he reached for the ball and landed on top of her, breaking her back.

Layton has not sued the Rays. But this month her attorney presented legal papers requesting the Rays disclose the still unidentified man's name and the person or corporation who purchased his ticket.

Shirley Shotzberger-Mogel and husband Richard Shotzberger, Tampa Bay Lightning season ticket holders, attended a hockey game in April 2007 at the St. Pete Times Forum. Prior to the game, according to their 2009 lawsuit, employees stood on a nearby rooftop and used air rifles to launch T-shirts into the crowed assembled at the Forum's outdoor pavilion.

The employees, the suit adds, encouraged fans to become raucous and "encouraged members of the crowd to jump into the air, lunge over other patrons and even push and shove other patrons by taunting sections of the crowd."

The results? Shirley Shotzberger-Mogel says she was "seriously injured about the neck, head and body" by a fellow fan. She argues the Lightning — whose owner was then based in Michigan — should have known the promotion was dangerous.

At Raymond James Stadium in 2006, Ronald F. Debiase says he was watching the Buccaneers play when Jeffrey Michael Smith of Port Charlotte allegedly assaulted him, causing serious injuries. The 2009 lawsuit says the stadium's security staff, Sentry Event Services, could have prevented the assault beforehand because Smith allegedly was "cursing and stating to the public at-large (that) he wanted to fight them."

A similar experience in 2008 happened to Eva Rush at a Bucs home game. In a lawsuit, Rush says she was injured when defendant Brenton Ruedeman got in a fight and allegedly threw or pushed another man into her. The Zephyrhills resident blamed Ruedeman as well as the Tampa Sports Authority, the stadium's owner.

Did alcohol influence some of these cases? Sure. But the risk of injury — and litigation — seems inevitable given big crowds and the frenzy of fans.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Sports franchises on the other end of litigation when fans hurt other fans 02/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 11:50am]

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