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U.S. District Court in OK Reversed Jury Verdict Against a Baseball Bat Manufacturer

Date: 9/18/12

In an extraordinarily important decision for the sporting goods industry, a United States District Court in Oklahoma has reversed a jury verdict against a baseball bat manufacturer, finding that a pitcher struck by a batted ball did not sustain his burden of demonstrating that the bat was defectively designed and lacked adequate warnings, or that these claimed defects caused his injury.

The plaintiff was a 15-year old pitcher who threw a bases loaded, full count fastball to the opposing team’s clean-up hitter, a large 17-year old.  The hitter was using an aluminum bat with carbon composite inserts in the throat between the handle and the barrel.  The inserts were intended to stiffen the bat and produce a “maximum trampoline effect” at the barrel, making the ball fly faster when hit. 

Coaches and spectators at the game testified they had never seen or heard a ball hit so fast or hard.  The ball struck the pitcher in the face, breaking several bones.  The pitcher and his parents sued the bat manufacturer, claiming the bat’s design presented a risk of harm far greater than would reasonably be expected.  In particular, they claimed the bat’s carbon inserts increased the ball’s exit speed beyond that of a wooden or aluminum-only bat, and the manufacturer failed to provide warnings about this characteristic.  At trial, the jury returned a verdict of almost $1M for the family. 

In reversing the verdict and granting judgment for the manufacturer, the Court determined that the family and their attorneys and experts had failed to introduce sufficient evidence to prove their claims.  During trial, the family had offered the testimony of two expert witnesses, a kinesiologist and a metallurgist.  The kinesiologist testified as to the speed of the batted ball as it flew toward the pitcher, the amount of reaction time the pitcher should have had, and the amount of reaction time he actually had after the hitter hit the ball.  However, the kinesiologist did not claim to be an expert on the bat or its capabilities.  He did not consider or rule out other potential causes for the incident, such as the pitcher’s  inattention, distraction or fatigue.  Importantly, he did not offer an opinion as to whether the bat’s performance, or any failure to warn of the bat’s capability, caused the incident.

The metallurgist testified concerning the physical characteristics of the bat, and told the jury that stiffening the throat of the bat would increase the “trampoline effect” and the ball’s exit speed.  Though qualified to do so, however, the metallurgist did not test the performance of the bat to determine whether it could actually produce that “trampoline effect”.  He did not test other bats to compare their performance, and admitted it is the nature of all metal bats to have a trampoline effect.  Critically, he denied any notion that the bat at issue violated ASTM or other standards for bat performance.

In light of this record, the Court determined that the mere fact a product “is not as safe as some other product on the market” is not the test for a design defect, and that the product must be “unreasonably dangerous” before there is even a duty to warn.  The family’s principal theory was that the subject bat was “too good,” resulting in its “enhanced performance”.  But, as the Court pointed out - - “too good compared to what?”  At trial, the family failed to show that the bat’s performance in fact exceeded some acceptable limit.  Indeed, though the performance differential between the bat and a so-called “acceptable bat” was objectively measurable, the family’s experts had not tested this. 

The Court also held that the family had not established that the bat had “dangerous characteristics” sufficient to render it a defective product.  The Court noted that all bats have the ability to impart enough kinetic energy to make a ball fly fast.  But, with respect to the family’s claim that this bat made the ball fly “too fast,” they failed to present evidence of some baseline against which to evaluate the performance of the subject bat against other bats. 

On the issue of causation, the Court discussed the fact that the incident could have been caused by multiple factors, including the performance of the bat, the ability of the batter to hit the ball hard, the speed of the pitch, the pitcher’s distraction resulting from the bases loaded situation on the field, the weather, and even the characteristics of the ball.  The family’s evidence only suggested a “mere possibility” that the condition of the bat caused the incident, a legally insufficient showing. 

The decision of the U.S. District Court is an important achievement for sporting goods manufacturers because it highlights the necessity for claimants to come forward with proper and sufficient evidence to prove that an alleged defect in a product (whether from deficiencies in manufacturing, design or warnings) actually exists and actually caused an injury.  In this case, the notion that a baseball bat did its jobs too well was not enough to establish a defect, or causation, where the injured player and his experts failed to provide any evidence concerning what they claimed would be an “acceptable” or “non-defective” bat.

Article By:
Kevin Mayer, Partner
Crowell & Moring LLP

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