Thousands of fans spent Friday's Opening Day cheering the Orioles at Camden Yards, but Russell M. Woolford is still reliving painful memories from last year's home opener.
Accusations of a punch thrown over a seat dispute and a disagreement over who said what to whom landed this week in Baltimore Circuit Court, pitting Woolford, a waiter from Canton, against Kevin W. Havens, a real estate agent from Hunt Valley. Woolford's lawsuit seeks $12 million in damages.
At first glance, it appears nothing more than a run-of-the-mill ballpark scuffle. But Woolford is not only targeting the agent; he's also targeting Obsidian Realty, the Baltimore company Havens works for. Woolford's suit contends that Havens was leading a promotional event that makes Obsidian liable.
Whether targeting the company for the purported actions of one employee will pass muster with a judge or a jury is a gamble, Woolford's attorney concedes. The real estate company's head denies the outing had anything to do with Obsidian, and the waiter and the real estate agent disagree on the tone and tenor of the banter that led up to the alleged assault.
Woolford's attorney, Mark A. Epstein, said Havens alleges that his client made annoying comments, but he stressed that whatever might have been said does not justify a punch. The lawyer said Woolford's left eye socket was fractured, requiring reconstructive surgery and the installation of a metal plate.
"When there's any kind of allegation of unpleasant activity by people sitting in the stands, people are supposed to go the usher instead of taking matters into their own hands," Epstein said. "Going to the usher would be the civil alternative."
Baltimore police, busy at Friday's Opening Day, were not able to say how many fights typically occur at games, but authorities have said there are fewer fracases at Camden Yards than there were at the Orioles' previous home, the rowdier Memorial Stadium on East 33rd Street.
In the mid-1990s, a fan from Philadelphia and a police officer from Long Island pummeled the Oriole Bird in separate attacks, once sending the feathery mascot tumbling off a 7-foot wall and into right field. But most incidents are quickly settled by officers who haul miscreants off to a cell or out of the ballpark, usually forgotten after the alcohol wares off.
A courtroom showdown between Woolford and Havens is a long way off, with no dates scheduled for depositions, motions or trial, if it comes to that. On Friday, Havens said he had heard of the lawsuit but had not seen it or been served with papers. "I really have no comment at this point," the agent said. "I don't know much about it."
An attorney for Obsidian, William L. Ralston, issued a brief statement on behalf of the firm's owner, Henry MacLaughlin Jr.: "The alleged incident occurred while several friends attended a baseball game. The allegation that it was an Obsidian event in any form is completely false."
Woolford, who lives in Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County, attended last year's April 4 home opener against the Detroit Tigers with co-workers from the Dockside Restaurant in Canton. In his lawsuit, he said his group settled into upper-deck seats behind home plate.
The court papers say that Havens then arrived with a group and told Woolford that "he and his friends had to move" because they were in the wrong seats. Woolford said in the suit that his group moved to the next row up, directly behind "where Mr. Havens and his group were seated."
In the lawsuit, Woolford says that in the third or fourth inning, "for no apparent or justifiable reason, without cause or provocation, and with brutal force," Havens struck him.
Epstein said his client sought help from an usher and went to a hospital. Woolford later applied for first-degree assault charges through a District Court commissioner. But city prosecutors dropped the charges, according to court records, saying the victim did not show up for trial.
Epstein said the state's attorney's office failed to notify Woolford about the trial date.