A year after Major League Baseball player Dustin Fowler’s knee was seriously injured while playing against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feinerman ruled Fowler’s negligence lawsuit against the White Sox can proceed in state court.
Fowler’s case stems from an incident on June 29, 2017. Fowler, then 22, was playing in his first-ever MLB game as a right fielder for the New York Yankees when he attempted to catch a foul ball along the wall on the right foul line and his knee made contact with an exposed metal electrical box. The serious injury required surgery and brought an abrupt end to the rest of Fowler’s season.
Fowler filed a lawsuit against the team alleging the box was negligently installed in a position where it was undetectable, which posed an unreasonable risk of injury to players. Our case contends that the White Sox knew of the hazard the box posed, but failed to take action to correct the problem, or let players on opposing teams know about it.
Attorneys for the White Sox filed a motion to move the case to federal court, arguing that Fowler’s claims fell under the purview of federal law and the MLB’s bargaining agreement. However, Judge Feinerman disagreed, ruling that Illinois law did indeed apply, and that the case may stay in Cook County.
“Under Illinois law, the elements of a negligence claim are ‘the existence of a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty, and an injury proximately caused by that breach,’” Judge Feinerman wrote in his opinion.
Cavanagh Law Group’s partner on the case, Michael Sorich, said the ruling was significant.
“This is a very significant ruling which will allow the case to proceed in Cook County where it was originally filed,” Sorich said. “We can now move forward and get answers to why the exposed electrical box was placed in a dangerous area and caused Dustin’s serious injuries.“
The White Sox have not denied that the electrical box was uncovered or without padding, and hidden from players’ sight. Fowler’s case contends that the injuries he suffered because of the box’s placement and installation fall under Illinois law, however, the White Sox argued Fowler’s claims should fall under the federal Labor Management Relations Act because Fowler’s employment is governed by the 2017-2021 Basic Agreement — a collectively bargained agreement between the Major League Clubs and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
That agreement includes Article XIII, which establishes a joint Safety and Health Advisory Committee to “deal with emergency safety and health problems as they arise” and “to engage in review of, planning for and maintenance of safe and healthful working conditions for Players.” Anyone is allowed to convene a meeting should a safety issue arise, but players are not required to raise an issue with the committee before filing a formal grievance in arbitration.
However, because the electrical box was not detectable to players, Judge Feinerman noted that a player could not have raised it as a safety issue because they could not have known about it, and, therefore, Article XIII did not apply.
“If the White Sox’s argument were plausible, then a court would need to interpret Article XIII to determine whether (or to what extent) the White Sox owed Fowler a duty of care, and Fowler’s negligence claim would be completely preempted,” Judge Feinerman wrote. “But the White Sox’s reading of Article XIII is not plausible. No club could have reasonably believed, based on the text of Article XIII, that the Committee would be able to identify safety risks so comprehensively and effectively that, as long as the Committee raised no objections, the club could simply assume that nothing in its premises posed an unreasonable risk to players.”