077: Fair — or Foul?

Stella Case No. 077, Originally Published: 28 July 2004

Michael Licitra, 44, played catcher in the Over-35 Men’s Slow-Pitch Softball League in Garden City, Long Island, New York. During a league playoff game for his team the “West Enders” in the fall of 2001, Licitra says John Knowles, 39, crashed into him despite the “Pete Rose Rule”, more officially known as “Rule 11″ in the Garden City League book, which prohibits “avoidable” collisions. Licitra’s leg was broken in the collision with Knowles, requiring surgery to repair.

In America, INJURY + RULE = LAWSUIT! Yes, Licitra sued Knowles — as well as the Village of Garden City — in New York Supreme Court, demanding $2 million in damages for his injuries, based on the alleged violation of the league rule.

Ball streaking toward catcher's mitt.
Play Ball! (Photo: Keith Johnston via Pixabay)

Licitra’s attorney Robert Morici says softball “is not a contact sport,” and that Licitra played under the assumption that the rules would be followed.

The other side, of course, disagreed. “If we lose this case,” said Knowles’ attorney, Robert Baxter, just before the trial began, “my statement to everyone would be don’t play sports in this county.” He said the case was “a joke” and that all athletes assume the risk of injury when they play sports.

A motion to dismiss the case on that premise was rejected before trial. The so-called “assumption of risk” in playing sports “[does] not relieve the defendant from the obligation of using reasonable care to guard against a risk which might reasonably be anticipated,” ruled Supreme Court Justice Bruce D. Alpert.

The “Pete Rose Rule” was born in the major leagues when Rose, playing in the 1970 All-Star Game, crashed into catcher Ray Fosse. Fosse’s shoulder was injured enough that it affected his career. The rule states, “If any player has possession of the ball, the runner MUST either slide, avoid the fielder or surrender the tag.” Violations may be punished up to and including ejection from the game by the umpire. Knowles was not ejected from the game.

In his testimony, Licitra said he was on the basepath and had just been thrown the ball when Knowles “veered one or two steps” off the base line and “dove” into him head-first. Knowles’ attorney said that his client was merely sliding into home head-first — exactly as Rule 11 requires. The game’s umpire, James Geasor, agreed that Knowles “did a hook slide to try and touch the plate,” but did not intentionally crash into the catcher.

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Pause here: how would you, as a member of the Court of Public Opinion, rule in the case?

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After a two-and-a-half-year grind through the court system, the six-member jury in the case ruled …the action in the game was fair.

“We didn’t feel that [Knowles] was negligent,” said the only juror willing to comment on the case. “I felt the umpire was impartial.”

“This play was nothing like the Pete Rose play,” Knowles said after the verdict was read. “It was an unfortunate play for sure. Sometimes, playing sports, that will happen.”

“I’m more impressed with the jury system now than ever,” said Knowles’ lawyer, Robert Baxter. “Now you don’t have to tell your kids that they can’t play sports in the county.”

Yes, the system worked: a man was injured, thought maybe it was on purpose, and he got his day in court. So what makes it Stella Awards material? Trying to gouge his neighbors in town for a windfall: why should the local taxpayers be on the hook for a $2 million judgement?

There was no indication that the town had any responsibility for the injury, such as improperly maintaining the field; the only reason I can see to include the Village of Garden City as a defendant is to be the “deep pockets” — to pay the multi-million-dollar judgment in case of a victory. If anyone was responsible for the injury, it would only have been Knowles. But as the jury ruled, no one was at fault: it was simply an accident.

Sources

  • “Injured Softballer Crying Foul”, New York Newsday, 15 July 2004.
  • “Collision a Fair Play”, New York Newsday, 20 July 2004.

Case Status

As noted, dismissed.

My 2021 Thoughts on the Case

Another one that wasn’t in the book. My vague recollection is that I was already way over my page allotment, and the editor asked if I could drop a few cases. This is one I selected since it was more ambiguous (as the “You Decide” cases were meant to be).

Absolutely no one expects to be injured playing sports, and I definitely feel for Licitra. That said, anyone who is into sports sees injuries all the time when watching on TV or from the stands; there is “an obligation of ‘assumption of risk’ in playing sports,” as the judge ruled. It’s even true of solo sports, like skiing or horseback riding.

So yes, we can lament the injuries, but not condone a multi-million-dollar payday over an accident.

Comments and Letters

Kevin in Washington was one of several that disagreed with me when I editorialized in the see-through shorts case that employers “certainly don’t have a duty to evaluate the fashion statements that various customers wish to make, even if they’re in poor taste, and cover the eyes of adult employees who might object.”

He writes, “Sure the ladies were trying to get some bucks out of the store and they didn’t deserve it, but I disagree with your statement. Store owners don’t have to judge fashion but they do have a moral obligation to their employees and customers. Stores often do not allow entry without shirt or shoes. I think it’s reasonable to expect a store to not allow a person in naked. He was not naked you say; well see-through shorts with no undergarments is pretty damn naked. Most cities also have laws dealing with ‘indecent exposure’. So the manager would certainly be justified in disallowing this kind of ‘fashion statement’.”

Justified? Perhaps. Have a duty to do so? No! And that’s the huge difference here. On to an opposing view.

Seth in Minnesota: “It seems to me that if the customer’s (degree of) clothing was permitted by law, then the store (which presumably didn’t have a dress code) had no say in the matter. And if the customer’s clothing was not within the bounds of the law, then the complainants should have called the police. It isn’t store management’s job to attempt to enforce laws.”

Kevin, an attorney in West Virginia: “I think this [case] demonstrates that the system actually does work. The employees filed suits, had their day in court, and a jury found that they were not entitled to compensation. This is a portrait of the American civil justice system at its finest. I suppose some would argue that these women should have never been permitted to file the suits in the first place, but if that is what you believe you might as well burn the Constitution.”

Here Comes Another Editorial…

Kevin, the True Stella Awards isn’t about a broken court system, just as it’s not a screed against lawyers. Just because a case is thrown out doesn’t mean it’s not frivolous! TSA is about the abuse of the system.

Yes, some parts of the system are broken, just as some of the lawyers involved are slime (and, as demonstrated, many are not). TSA is ultimately about society, and the increasing trend toward demanding compensation from someone (anyone! Including — especially including — those who are not at all involved, as in this week’s case where the system worked.) It’s about the growing something-for-nothing attitude in America that others “owe” us huge sums of money to pay for every perceived wrong.

It’s about an ever-growing burden on society in the form of a hidden “tax” that we all pay in higher insurance premiums, reduced access to health care, and higher product costs to pay for ever-growing judgments on often-ridiculous cases that clog up the courts for years, slowing down progress on righteous cases.

And TSA is here to illustrate the various causes of the overall problem: it’s not just the courts, the lawyers, the plaintiffs, the insurance companies, the juries, or an increasingly sick society: it’s all of these things together — which is why virtually all attempts at “tort reform” will fail: they only address specific parts (the parts funded by monied special interests), not the whole problem. Or, if you will, minor symptoms, rather than the systemic disease.

Of course there shouldn’t be prohibitions on filing suits; TSA has never argued any such thing. But we as a society must stop looking the other way when ridiculous suits are filed. We must take a stand and tell the litigants it’s not right. When a truly frivolous suit is filed, there must be real and meaningful sanctions against the plaintiffs involved — and, often, their lawyers. But that, of course, is far from the whole answer; it’s only the treatment of one symptom. I’ll be covering many more treatments for this disease in my book, due out in 2005.

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Ted, an attorney in California: “I enjoy reading the TSA, and thank you for all your efforts! My question: has any plaintiff (or his/her attorney) whose lawsuit you’ve featured ever written to you to complain about the treatment you gave the case?”

Not that I recall. Since many of the cases are still being litigated, I would suppose that it would usually be improper for the lawyers to comment, and ill-advised for the plaintiffs. But I have heard from a couple of the defendants from dismissed frivolous cases, cheering me on and complimenting the fair reporting of the case.

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6 Comments on “077: Fair — or Foul?

  1. In general, I think, any adult who stands into danger can be assumed to have done so with at least a reasonable understanding of the potential risks… and should be treated that way.

    Reply
  2. I used to attend city softball games and once saw a guy break his leg. He was taken to the hospital in an ambulance… the REALLY bad part of the story is that his wife was in the hospital at the time, but he was taken to a DIFFERENT hospital.

    But then…. Maybe he shouldn’t have been playing softball while his wife was hospitalized.

    Reply
    • Depends on why she was in the hospital and what she thought. For all we know she told him to go play. When I was in the hospital my wife continued her normally scheduled recreation activities. I didn’t expect her to be at my bed 24/7.

      Reply
  3. I’m a baseball umpire and I’ve seen three major injuries but never ejected anyone for them.

    First: Runner on 3rd picked off by the catcher. Fielder tagged runner on the helmet. Runner didn’t get up. Ended up leaving in an ambulance. Found out later he had 3 concussions playing hockey that year. He should not have been playing.

    2nd: Runner on second runs to third throw from catcher is offline and 3rd baseman had to reach into foul territory to catch it. Runner slid and got tangled up with the fielder’s feet. Fielder went down and broke his collar bone.

    3rd: pitcher took a line drive near her groin and cracked her pelvis. (I was the batter on that one and felt awful, but wasn’t ejected).

    It sucks to get hurt but you can’t have 0 expectation of getting hurt because stuff happens even in “non contact” sports.

    Reply
  4. As nuts as it sounds to include the city in the lawsuit, I ran my own business for a while and had several lawyers as clients. They all said that when filing suit you should name everybody with even a remote connection, and let the judge sort them out. Otherwise, you could have a defense lawyer for the player say that the city was at fault; the judge agrees and throws the case out. Then you file against the city and their lawyer says the league was responsible; that judge agrees and throws the case out. So you file against the league and THEIR lawyer convinces the judge it was the player’s fault — and now you’re out of luck.

    Reply
  5. I agree that sports, even solo sports, come with a degree of risk. I am the poster child for it. I have slipped and broken my arm while training for a half-marathon. Torn and damaged a tendon in my thumb preparing for another run. Broken a leg x-country skiing. And, most recently, and still recovering from, a horrible mountain bike incident (broken collarbone, several broken ribs, punctured lung, collapsed lung). And, I take responsibility for all these accidents myself.

    Reply

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