Injured by errant bat at Orioles game, woman sues for more fan protection

Patricia Dowdell never saw Chris Davis lose his grip on the bat, sending it spinning wildly over the Orioles dugout and into the fourth row where she sat with her fiancee.

"We see some fans waving for help to come down," the Orioles broadcaster said on radio. "That bat came whipping into the stands and hopefully everyone will be OK down there."

But Dowdell wasn't. Dazed and bleeding, she couldn't fathom what had hit her head as she looked at the scoreboard during the game against the Cleveland Indians last July 23 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. She heard herself moaning as if somehow detached from her body.

It wasn't until the Ellicott City woman arrived at the hospital — where court documents say her injuries included skull and orbital fractures and brain swelling — that she realized the 230-pound first-baseman had inadvertently sent his bat windmilling into the seats at the end of a swinging strike.

Every season, foul balls strike hundreds of fans and bats fly into the stands, though more rarely. On Opening Day this year, bats went into the stands at Camden Yards twice during the same Toronto player's plate appearance. To protect fans, Major League Baseball recommended that teams, starting last year, extend netting at least to the dugouts from home plate.

But Dowdell — who rarely attends games and said she knows little about the sport — believes that's not enough, and that more can be done to protect fans. On March 31, she filed a suit in Baltimore Circuit Court claiming negligence by the Orioles and the league. The suit seeks more than $75,000 in damages and an injunction requiring the team to install protective netting to the outfield side of each dugout.

"Honest to God, I had no idea a bat could fly into the stands," said Dowdell, 62, a graduate studies administrator at the University of Maryland who said she now has screws in her cheek and four plates to hold her left eye in place. "It just makes me cringe to think that this could ever happen to a child. That's just scary."

The Orioles and Major League Baseball declined comment on Dowdell's suit and the protective measures at Camden Yards, where the netting behind home plate curves around the first-base and third-base lines, stopping at the camera wells, which are cutout areas connected to the dugouts.

The Orioles aren't the only club facing questions about fan safety. Each team, with guidance from the league, makes its own decision on how far down the foul lines to install the screens.

Since many fans say nets obscure their view of the game, it's an issue — like whether to require motorcyclists to wear helmets — that pits safety concerns against personal choice.

"Some folks — your true baseball fans — no matter what you put up there, they're not going to be satisfied," said Matt Cross, general manager of Promats Athletics, a North Carolina company that makes a thin, knotless netting installed at a number of major league stadiums, including Camden Yards. "But if I'm sitting at a game and there is a young child near me, I feel a little more at ease."

The suit, filed by Washington attorney Brendan Klaproth, doesn't blame Davis — it says he was just doing his job.

Davis, who is aware a fan was hospitalized, said teams and fans share a responsibility to keep all spectators safe.

"I do feel like there are situations where even if you're paying attention — which you should be — at a baseball game, the balls are too quick for you to really do anything," Davis said.

But at the same time, the player said: "You can't just be going to a game and be looking on your phone or something like that and get hit with a ball or a bat … and say 'I'm going to sue the team.'"

The day after Dowdell's injuries, Davis lost his bat again, slumping his shoulders in disgust as the bat sailed more than a dozen rows into the stands up the line from the Orioles dugout. Nobody appeared to be injured, and a video replay showed a smiling fan holding the bat.

About 1,750 fans are hurt by foul balls in big league stadiums every season — or at least twice every three games, according to a 2014 analysis by Bloomberg News. There was no data for injuries from bats.

Major League Baseball has said in the past that the risk of injury to fans is well known and stated on tickets.

Dangers posed by foul balls and bats are a concern not only for fans but players, some of whom have advocated for longer screens after seeing their line drives or wooden bats — either intact or broken — strike spectators.

Freddy Galvis of the Philadelphia Phillies said he was shaken after hitting a foul ball last season that struck a young girl in the face.

"You have to keep playing but you know you just hit somebody," Galvis said. "I think they can figure out something where they put up more netting and try to protect more fans and you can still talk to people and throw balls to the little kids. I know they're going to figure out something."

Joe LaRue, Dowdell's fiancee, said an Orioles representative contacted him several days after the accident and said Davis wanted to visit Dowdell in the hospital. But Dowdell was discharged later that day and the visit didn't happen.

LaRue also said the representative "wanted to express concern over what happened and wondered how she was doing."

Dowdell said she endured plastic surgery, and still has numbness and suffers from migraines. She said she returned to work full time in January.

Major League Baseball recommended in December 2015 that all teams, at a minimum, shield fans in field-level seats from balls and bats between the ends of the dugouts closest to home plate. The goal was to protect any fan sitting within 70 feet of the plate.

In the preceding season, 44-year-old Tonya Carpenter was rushed to a Boston hospital after being struck and seriously injured by a piece of a broken bat during a game between the Red Sox and Oakland A's.

In that same season — also at Boston's Fenway Park — Stephanie Wapenski needed dozens of stitches and suffered a concussion when hit above the bridge of the nose by a foul ball.

When the recommendation was announced, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said it "attempts to balance the need for an adequate number of seating options with our desire to preserve the interactive pregame and in-game fan experience that often centers around the dugouts, where fans can catch foul balls, see their favorite players up close and, if they are lucky, catch a tossed ball or other souvenir."

"We're fighting tradition," said Robert Hilliard, an attorney who brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of fans seeking to extend nets farther down the lines.

A judge dismissed the suit last year, ruling the fans lacked standing to sue.

"There will be a day when this will be looked back on and people will say, 'We allowed this to happen?' The wrong ball hit at the right speed and you're rolling the dice," Hilliard said.

All 30 teams "immediately" complied with Major League Baseball's recommendation, said MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney.

Nine teams — including the Washington Nationals — went beyond the recommendation by extending netting, to varying degrees, beyond the edge of the dugout, Courtney said.

The screen at Nationals Park was extended last season and now covers fans over the length of both dugouts.

"Do I wish it weren't here? Yeah, but it's still a great seat," said Don Rudzinski, a Nationals season ticket holder from Fairfax, Va., who was sitting recently behind the first-base dugout screen. "After a while the netting seems like it goes away. You get used to it."

Orioles fans also expressed mixed feelings.

"My first thought is that I come down on the side of 'no net,' but I am not too concerned either way," said Sam Angell, who has a partial season ticket plan at Camden Yards. "I always love the thrill of a potential foul ball, but with more and more people spending more time on their cellphones at the ballpark, a net that would increase safety probably isn't a bad idea."

Season ticket holder Julie Saxenmeyer also said smartphones have changed the equation.

"I try to pay attention as much as possible but it's very difficult to be focused on every pitch," she said. "The average fan in the stands is distracted a lot of the time, even more so now that everyone has a phone. I guess I lean in favor of extending the netting because of the distraction factor."

When balls or bats go into the stands, fans are entitled to keep them as souvenirs. That's long been part of the game's appeal. A fan celebrated grabbing one of the bats that went into the Camden Yards stands on the most recent Opening Day.

It's different for Dowdell. A friend has the bat that struck her, and her attorney wants it for evidence.

"You can have it," Dowdell told her lawyer with a wan smile during a recent meeting. "I don't want it as a display."

Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo Encina contributed to this article.

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