One Thursday, a 39-year-old firefighter named Shannon Stone leaned over a stadium railing at a Texas Rangers game to catch a ball flipped into the stands by Ranger outfielder Josh Hamilton. Stone’s son, 6-year old Cooper, was a big Hamilton fan, and the devoted father made an extra effort, catching the ball but falling over the railing down to the concrete 20 feet below. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, and died.
The railing where Stone fell is 33 inches, seven inches more that the legally required 26 inches. Why is it that short? So people sitting in the front row can see the game without having to look through the railing. Is it dangerous? Well, it was dangerous this time.
Everyone, naturally, is horrified by the tragedy. The Rangers held a moment of silence for the firefighter at the game last night. Hamilton, who like all major league players has been instructed to toss inning-ending balls and retrieved fouls into the stands for fans to catch as souvenirs, is understandably distraught.
Your Ethics Quiz: Should the Stone family sue the Rangers?
The first question should be, perhaps, will they? I will be shocked if they don’t, and will award them an Ethics Hero if that is the case. I am sure they are getting advice that a lawsuit would be a slam dunk, with a big pay-off. A firefighter? A father killed before the eyes of his 6-year old son? Media coverage emphasizing how the railing “didn’t come up to Cooper’s waist”? “Think of Cooper’s future,” the advisors are saying. “What jury wouldn’t want to give him money?”
Meanwhile, the Barn Door Fallacy is in full swing. Articles about ballpark safety are popping up all over the media. Never mind that in thousands upon thousands of Major League games, with all the balls thrown into the stands, all of the fouls and home runs hit in or near the stands for more than a century, this has never happened before. The drumbeats for higher railings in every park will be irresistible, because the family of next fan to be injured this way, no matter when or why, will be able to argue that the teams were on notice: look what happened to Shannon Stone.
Already, the media muckrakers are pointing fingers at baseball management for this tragedy. The accident was foreseeable, they say—the magic words for trial lawyers, blood in the water. Yes, any accident is foreseeable after it has occurred. Mike Florio, an NBC columnist who operates as a fan advocate, has written that whopping damages need to be levied by a jury on the Rangers so that clubs will do their duty, or what Florio thinks should be their duty, to protect fans. Raise the railings. Eliminate front rows. Add ledges to catch the one fan every century who falls over the railing. And when the next fan makes a rash decision that gets him killed, maybe put up glass walls, or electric fences. That concrete is dangerous: make ballparks use that spongy stuff they use on playgrounds now. And after that doesn’t work, maybe, for their own protection, fans should be strapped into their seats like on amusement park rides. Each fan would have a buzzer so an usher could release them to go to the bathroom. Or make all fans wear helmets. That would have saved Stone.
The answer to the quiz is no, the Stone family shouldn’t sue the Rangers, though it is virtually certain that they will, or perhaps threaten to sue (also known as “legal extortion”) so the Rangers will pay some kind of seven figure settlement. I don’t want to be too cynical, but all the Ranger releases about the players seeking grief counseling and the expressions of grief coming out of the executive offices tells me that the club is doing everything it can to avoid being cast as the villain in the story, which is what the public and media’s natural inclination would be to do. All the focus is on the welfare of the little boy and Stone’s family, and that creates the perfect rationalization to make a corporation assume financial responsibility for the father’s death. And the tort system in America is set up to make that easy. I am not a foe of the civil justice system, but this is the kind of scenario that causes it to malfunction badly.
The party responsible for the tragedy was not Josh Hamilton for throwing the ball short (players are instructed to toss the ball deep in the stands, but the father called to him to toss the ball for his boy), and not the Rangers for having a railing that was plenty high enough to keep anyone from falling over it who wasn’t being reckless, but Shannon Stone, who may well have pondered, on his way down, that all in all his boy would rather have had a Dad than a baseball. Stone made a terrible, irresponsible decision, and paid with his life and his family’s future, but he made it. The tort system is often used to transfer the financial responsibility for misfortune to deep pockets, but this practice is unethical unless the party being held liable was genuinely negligent. I am absolute certain that a skilled Texas trial lawyer—and Texas is full of them—will have a jury weeping about how an evil and heartless business created a trap that killed poor little Cooper Stone’s father, and the winning theory will be that the accident was “foreseeable.” It will work. The money is ripe for the taking.
It’s still wrong. Accidents happen, good people make stupid, life-altering mistakes, and the law shouldn’t be used to make one party’s tragedy an innocent party’s burden. Cooper Stone will get a trust fund, and all over baseball the railings will be raised, and the front rows will be eliminated, and and there will announcements on the jumbotron every inning reminding fans NOT to kill themselves going after balls, and the enjoyment of the game of a million fans will be diminished while they pay higher ticket prices, because for one fatal instant, a father who knew better threw his life away for a twenty-dollar ball.
I am sorry that his wife and son have to suffer for his mistake. But it was his mistake, and the Texas Rangers and the fans who wouldn’t hurl themselves over a railing to catch a ball should not be punished for it.
(You can take Part II of the Shannon Stone Tragedy Ethics Quiz here.)