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Let the spectator beware

Edward Hochuli is best known as a National Football League referee. But Hochuli is also an Arizona trial lawyer who has conducted an in-depth study of spectator liability at sporting events.

Hochuli knows his stuff. He explains, for instance, why the NFL started fining players $1,000 for throwing footballs into the stands to celebrate touchdowns. It wasn't over wasting $30 pigskins. It was the potential for causing a scramble for the ball that could lead to possible injuries to fans and liability to the league.

He notes that baseball, which has reported five fan deaths in its history, was treated gently by the courts as far back as 1925, when an Ohio judge ruled, "It is common knowledge that in baseball games, hard balls are thrown and batted with great swiftness . . . (and) spectators are in positions which may be reached by such balls assume the risk thereof."

One key to baseball's solid legal standing in such cases is that stadiums provide a protected area _ the net-covered area behind home plate _ and fans can elect to sit there instead of along the first or third base lines, where foul shots pose a threat.

Hochuli says hockey is second to baseball "in generating suits by injured spectators." He points to a court ruling that likened the potential danger of hockey to baseball: "The risk of being hit by a baseball or by a puck . . . is a risk incidental to the entertainment and is assumed by the spectator. Any other rule of law would place an unreasonable burden upon the operator of a ballpark or hockey rink."

In golf, Hochuli finds there are less clear-cut guidelines for liability. Spectators injured by errant balls may sue the golfer but are more successful at suing the course or club. However, due to the general unpredictability of where balls will land, clubs can protect themselves by "meeting reasonable safety standards."

One case won by a golfer: In 1985, a spectator was watching Tom Watson get his ball from the woods when he heard the shout of "fore." At that moment, he was struck in the eye by a shot from another golfer. The trial court sided with the club. But its decision was overturned by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that the golf club should "anticipate that a spectator will be distracted by one golfer and thus placed at risk by another."