On March 31st of last year, San Francisco Giants fan Brian Stow allegedly was attacked and sucker-punched by two L.A. Dodgers fans after an opening-day game between the two clubs at Dodgers Stadium. His head hit the pavement, leaving Stow with a fractured skull and brain trauma. Doctors placed him in a medically-induced coma for several months. According to Stow’s attorneys, the attack has left Stow with permanent brain injury and severely limited movement. Today, he is wheelchair-bound and reportedly will require 24-hour nursing care for the rest of his life. Only recently has he begun to write and try to speak. A former paramedic, he is unable to support himself or his family.
In May, Stow filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking $50M in damages against the Dodgers, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, and several others. Stow asserts that the Dodgers were negligent, among other reasons, for failing to provide adequate security, failing to provide adequate lighting, and promoting a half-off beer sale that promoted violence. He also claims that the Dodgers fired 300 security staff shortly before the assault, and he submitted sworn declarations from eight other Giants fans alleging that they had difficulty in finding security personnel to respond to threats against them during the game. He also argues that one of Stow’s assailants was involved in two prior incidents that day and that the Dodgers should have ejected him from the ballpark hours before he attacked Stow. Many people online report a long-term tolerance by the Dodgers of a significant “thuggish” element at the ballpark.
In opposition, the Dodgers have argued that stadium security was at record levels on opening day and that they had no way to anticipate the attack. Further, they deny any half-off beer promotion.
In June, the Dodgers filed for bankruptcy in Delaware, resulting in a stay of the L.A. case. Under a reorganization plan filed by the Dodgers, et al., McCourt and other Dodgers officials would be released from legal liability for any actions they took in their official capacity as team representatives that may have contributed to Stow’s injuries.
On February 3rd of this year, the Dodgers moved in the Bankruptcy Court for a motion disallowing all of Stow’s claims, arguing that Stow cannot win the L.A. case as a matter of law because Stow cannot prove a link between security issues and the beating. In response, Stow’s counsel has asked the Bankruptcy Court to yield to Los Angeles Superior Court.
For several reasons, the Bankruptcy Court is likely to allow the L.A. suit to run its course: First, the case has obtained nationwide attention, and federal judges are not immune from media-generated pressure. If the court stops the L.A. action, some will claim that the court hijacked the jury-trial process. Second, the Dodgers recently disclosed documents establishing the existence of insurance of over $300M, which is more than enough for a verdict in favor of Stow. Third, the Dodger bankruptcy is unusual in that the owners will be flush with money after reorganization. Reports cite many interested buyers, with a predicted sale price as high as $2 billion for the franchise. Finally, the Dodgers reportedly have admitted that, in all likelihood, all creditors will be paid in full from sale proceeds from the sale. Bankruptcy judge Kevin Gross already has hinted at the likely outcome, noting that the Dodgers will have a considerable task in convincing him "that there are absolutely, positively no facts that could result in liability under California law." Hearings on the matter are scheduled for March 7th and March 21st. A hearing regarding the proposed reorganization plan is set for April 13th, and sale of the franchise is scheduled for April 30th.
Bill Staar is a partner in the Boston office of Morrison Mahoney LLP, Chair of DRI's Sports Law & Entertainment Group, and a member of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association’s Legal Task Force. He concentrates in the areas of product liability, construction disputes, toxic torts, and general business litigation. He also is a member of DRI's Product Liability, Commercial Litigation, and Construction Law Committees.