KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If it had been a foul ball or broken bat that struck John Coomer in the eye as he watched a Kansas City Royals game, the courts likely wouldn't force the team to pay for his surgeries and suffering.
But because it was a hot dog thrown by the team mascot — behind the back, no less — he just may have a case.
The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing whether the "baseball rule" — a legal standard that protects teams from being sued over fan injuries caused by events on the field, court or rink — should also apply to injuries caused by mascots or the other personnel that teams employ to engage fans. Because the case could set a legal precedent, it could change how teams in other cities and sports approach interacting with fans at their games.
Coomer, of Overland Park, Kan., says he was injured at a September 2009 Royals game when the team's lion mascot, Sluggerrr, threw a 4-ounce, foil-wrapped wiener into the stands that struck his eye. He had to have two surgeries — one to repair a detached retina and the other to remove a cataract that developed and implant an artificial lens. Coomer's vision is worse now than before he was hurt and he has paid roughly $4,800 in medical costs, said his attorney, Robert Tormohlen.
Coomer, 53, declined to discuss the case. His lawsuit seeks an award of "over $20,000" from the team, but the actual amount he is seeking is likely much greater. Tormohlen declined to discuss the actual amount.
The Jackson County jurors who first heard the case two years ago sided with the Royals, saying Coomer was completely at fault for his injury because he wasn't aware of what was going on around him. An appeals court overturned that decision in January, ruling that while being struck by a baseball is an inherent risk fans assume at games, being hit with a hot dog isn't.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in September, but didn't indicate when it might issue its ruling.
The Royals, whose spokesman declined to comment on the case while it is pending, have argued that the hot dog toss has been a popular fan attraction at Kauffman Stadium since 2000 and is as much part of the game experience as strikeouts and home runs.
A ruling in Coomer's favor, or one that at least assigns partial blame to the mascot, could force teams to rethink their promotions or take additional measures to keep spectators safe, said Jordan Kobritz, a professor in the Sports Management Department at State University of New York at Cortland.
Bob Jarvis, a sports law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, said a 1997 California case set an important precedent when a state appeals court ruled that mascots were not an essential part of a baseball game.
In that case, a minor league baseball team's dinosaur brushed against a fan, John Lowe, distracting him right before he was struck by a ball that broke several bones in his face. The court said mascot antics weren't essential or integral to the playing of a game. The case was later settled for an undisclosed sum, Jarvis said.
In the Kansas City case, a ruling in the Royals' favor would indicate that mascots are, indeed, an essential part of the game experience, Jarvis said. If that happens, the Kansas City case would likely supplant the 1997 California case as the one attorneys look at when deciding whether to file a lawsuit on behalf of an injured fan.