THEIR VIEW: Judge will decide if lack of safety rail on bleachers is hidden hazard

By The West Virginia Record | Oct 4, 2013


Recently, the estate of a man who died during a youth baseball game sued the youth baseball league in Preston County. Back in 2011, the man attended a baseball game and fell from the bleachers while trying to avoid a foul ball.

At 66 years old, the man had been seated on top of the bleachers, which lacked a rail or something else that he could hold onto to prevent a fall. As a consequence, he suffered severe, though unspecified, injuries. The lawsuit claims that he was forced to seek medical treatment; experienced pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, lost ability to function; and suffered from lost wages. He died seven months later.

The lawsuit also claims that the defending parties - the Terra Alta Youth League, Terra Alta Community Park, and the Town of Terra Alta - did not exercise reasonable care of their property, the bleachers. The defendants allegedly never conducted a reasonable inspection of the bleachers, failed to give attendees - who under tort, would be considered invitees - a safe place to sit, never maintained the premises, and neither corrected the hazardous condition or warn the attendees.

The Town of Terra Alta filed a cross-claim, demanding indemnification from the Terra Alta Youth League.

As this case highlights, there are different categories of guest, to which property owners have varying responsibilities. What we think of as an "invited guest" is actually called a licensee.

That includes any visitor who comes to your home not intending to make a business transaction. Visitors for a business purpose, or guests on a property that has been opened to the public (such as an amusement park, or a playing field), are known as "invitees."

Property owners owe the strictest duty to an invitee: they must warn about or make safe hidden hazards that they knew about or should have known about through reasonable inspection. By contrast, the only duty that property owners owe licensees is to warn or make safe hidden hazards that they knew about.

As with the case of the parking lot stairs, it would be interesting to see whether the circuit court judge agrees that the lack of railing on the bleachers constitutes a hidden hazard that could have been discovered and corrected after a reasonable inspection - especially if the bleachers were otherwise sound.

The judge's determination may partly depend upon whether the man's accident could have happened to any individual under those circumstances, or whether he was engaged in any careless behavior of his own. Regardless, it is a tragic situation, and certainly one that should not occur at a youth sporting event.

The Wolfe Law Firm is an Elkins personal injury firm founded by Dorwin Wolfe. This editorial appeared on the firm’s blog.

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