Guest Columns

HILLMAN: BASEBALL, BATS AND UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Metal bat decision may have its own victims

It’s natural to sympathize with the parents of Brandon Patch, the 18-year-old baseball pitcher who died after he was hit by a batted ball in 2003.

Sooner or later, however, sympathy must yield to logic and reason, so when Brandon’s parents sued the bat’s manufacturer, Louisville Slugger, and a jury awarded them $850,000, they contributed to the terribly misguided notion that behind every tragedy lies a lawsuit.

I haven’t suffered what the Patch’s have suffered, and I pray that I never do. I understand that pursuing litigation gives them a sense that their son’s random, pointless death was not so pointless.

However, the idiocy demonstrated by a Helena, Mont., jury won’t bring back Brandon Patch or prevent similar accidents in the future, but it will lead to more decisions based primarily on lawsuit avoidance rather than common sense.

The Patch’s sued Louisville Slugger’s parent company for failing to place warning labels on their metal bats, arguing that metal bats are more dangerous than wooden bats.

Shouldn’t plaintiffs be required to demonstrate that a warning label would have caused them to stop their son from playing in games in which metal bats were used?

Warning labels clearly are not the answer. They are so ubiquitous that everyone but the most risk-averse routinely ignore them.

Most of us understand “assumption of risk” — the concept that each of us makes choices every day that could, in rare circumstances, result in death or serious injury. We understand — until a lawyer dangles before our eyes the prospect of a six-figure verdict. And all he wants is one-third of the action.

I prefer wooden bats to metal bats — not for safety reasons, but because metal bats are a scourge on the game, much like the designated hitter. The “crack” of a wooden bat is as American as apple pie; the “ping” of a metal bat is as hollow as the taste of the $2.99 store-bought substitute.

A ball hit by a metal bat travels about 4 percent faster than one struck by a wooden bat. Would Brandon Patch be alive had he had .391 seconds instead of .376 seconds to react?

Even if the answer is “yes” — which is far from certain — the key legal question is whether a warning label would have caused the league to use wood bats or caused Brandon’s parents to stop him from playing.

Wooden bats, too, are inherently dangerous because baseball is inherently dangerous. (USA Baseball reports 39 on-the-field fatalities, some caused by balls hit by wooden bats, from 1989 to 2006.) No doubt, bats made of foam rubber would be safer still.

Why didn’t the Patch’s and their lawyer sue the batter? Or a coach? Or the catcher who called the pitch? Or the league that purchased metal bats rather than wooden ones? Each of those parties — though not at fault — was more directly involved in the events that led to Brandon’s death than the manufacturer of the bat.

However, Louisville Slugger has deep pockets, and the other parties don’t. Let’s face it: for most personal injury lawyers, the answer is always money because they profit from their client’s tragedy.

Moreover, the jurors — as is so often the case — focused only on this tragic case. Wanting to do something for the grieving family, the jury awarded $850,000 at the expense of a faceless, faraway corporation. The outcome — and certainly the amount — would have been different if the defendant had been a penniless recreation league or a player or coach who, like Brandon, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Did the jury consider the impact of its decision on baseball leagues across the country? Next time a player is seriously injured or killed in a similar fashion, his family’s lawyer will point to this case and say, “You knew metal bats were dangerous, but you used them anyway.”

Unless this verdict is overturned, selection of bats won’t be determined by schools, recreation leagues, coaches or parents, but by lawyers and courts. That’s a sad way to play America’s pastime.

Republican Mark Hillman, a Burlington wheat farmer, has served as Colorado Senate majority leader and state treasurer. He is the Republican National Committeeman for Colorado.