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Damages in Baseball

February 16, 2018

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Those who remember Elliott Maddox may feel déjà vu to learn a Yankees outfielder is suing over an injury sustained in a game against the White Sox.  On June 29, 2017, then-Yankees outfielder Dustin Fowler was making his major league debut in right field in a road game against the Chicago White Sox.  In the bottom of the first inning, Fowler tried to chase down a Jose Abreu foul ball, and, in the process, struck his right knee on an unpadded electrical box along the stadium wall in foul territory, rupturing his patella tendon and ending his season.  Now, he is suing the White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which generally oversees the maintenance of the White Sox’ park.
On the issue of damages alone, despite the well-documented, traumatic nature of the injury, Fowler is nonetheless presented with several daunting obstacles.  For instance, although his complaint claims severe and permanent injury as a result of the accident, unlike most plaintiffs, Fowler has a significant incentive to argue he had no issues in his recovery.  Major League Baseball (“MLB”) players are under team control upon arriving in the majors, typically earning the league minimum for their first three seasons.  For the next three seasons, players are only allowed to negotiate a contract with the one team, while the team holds exclusive rights to the player and almost all of the leverage.  Or, if they cannot agree, the team and player go to arbitration on a year-to-year basis before the player is allowed to negotiate on the much more lucrative, open market of free agency.
Fowler is therefore incentivized to demonstrate none of his skills were diminished and he is at no risk for further injury down the road as a result, lest he provide ammunition for teams to negotiate him down in arbitration and agency.  Unsurprisingly, Fowler is already telling reporters he is on pace to be 100% cleared to play on schedule, referring to the allegations in his claim as “worse-case scenario” and “just in case something comes up.” By that same token, should Fowler perform well in 2018, his ability to argue his career prospects or physical capabilities were harmed by the accident at trial will be severely undercut.
Moreover, although Fowler’s complaint claims significant medical expenses as a component of his damages, the collective bargaining agreement between the MLB Players Association and MLB virtually guarantees all of his medical expenses were covered by the New York Yankees and Workers’ Compensation.  Similarly, although Fowler’s complaint also claims his inability to play the remainder of the season as part of his damages, alleging past lost wages in addition to future lost wages, ironically, the injury may very well have been a financial windfall.
First, but for the injury, Fowler’s time in the majors was likely to be brief, as he was only called up as a temporary stopgap for several players with minor injuries.  Generally, the 2017 Yankees outfield was quite crowded. Further complicating matters, although Fowler was and is a well-regarded prospect, Clint Frazier is near-unanimously considered to be his superior at the same position, and he filled in for Fowler until Hicks returned after the accident.
Because of the injury, Fowler was placed on the major league disabled list—meaning for the months he was injured and unable to play, he acquired major league service time, which is necessary to get to more lucrative pay in arbitration and free agency.  Moreover, during that time, Fowler was compensated on a prorated basis at the major league minimum salary--$500,000—as opposed to the $2,150 he would have earned as a player in Triple-A had he remained healthy and been sent back down to the minors upon Hicks’ return.  Finally, on July 31, 2017, the Yankees traded Fowler to the Oakland Athletics, which the A’s say would not have been possible but for Fowler’s injury.  Now, Fowler has a clear path to playing time in Oakland when he would likely have been buried on the bench had he stayed in New York.
Ultimately, it is clear Fowler suffered a very painful injury, but given the unique circumstances of a professional athlete subject to a collective bargaining agreement, and the peculiarities of player compensation, his damages beyond pain and suffering may be very difficult to prove.  While this exact fact pattern is quite rare, it speaks to the myriad factors which may be implicated by a plaintiff’s damages claims, and the potential use of creative defenses to combat them.
Thanks to Nicholas Schaefer for his contribution to this post.  If you have any questions, please contact Vito A. Pinto.

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