2016-17 Iowa Supreme Court preview: Do high school baseball dugouts need to be completely enclosed?

By: Rox Laird on April 3rd, 2017

Muscatine High School was at bat in the fifth inning and Spencer Ludman was waiting in the dugout for his turn at bat when a foul ball rocketed off a Davenport Assumption player’s bat and struck Ludman in the head. He suffered a skull fracture, spent months recovering from brain injuries and suffers from seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The player sued, and a Scott County jury returned a verdict finding Davenport Assumption negligent – with the school 70 percent at fault and Ludman 30 percent – and set damages at $1.5 million. The District Court reduced the damage award to $1.033 million.

The question is who is to blame and, if so, to what degree? Did Davenport Assumption High School fail to protect visiting teams from foul balls? Or is Ludman at fault for failing to be aware of the inherent risks of baseball?

That is the central question before Iowa Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in Ludman v. Davenport Assumption High School when the court meets in Charles City today for its final oral argument session outside of Des Moines.

This is a timely case for the Court to take on the road: Baseball season officially begins with opening of the major league season this week. And, residents of any Iowa community can relate to an injured high school ballplayer as well as to the prospect of their school being held financially responsible for that injury.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the school raises several reasons why the verdict should be reversed. Among them: The case should never have gone to the jury because, under the “primary assumption of risk” standard, the high school had no duty to protect Ludman. Instead, he should have been aware of the dangers of baseball and taken precaution to protect himself from foul balls by remaining behind the dugout’s protective fence.

Ludman, in legal briefs submitted to the Court, disputes the school’s arguments and says the District Court verdict should stand – with one exception: He is asking the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court on comparative negligence and award him 100 percent of the damages.

The case has attracted amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs on both sides of the question:

The Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) argues in support of Davenport Assumption, noting that it hosts post-season tournaments at many Iowa high school ballfields with similar – or even less protective – dugout designs. That includes the site of recent state baseball tournament finals at the home of the Iowa Cubs at Des Moines’ Principal Park. (Disclosure: The IHSAA brief was written by lawyers Brian Humke and Ryan Koopmans of the Nyemaster Goode Law Firm, which hosts this blog.)

On the flip side, the Iowa Association of Justice, an organization of Iowa trial lawyers, argues that the Supreme Court should uphold the lower-court ruling because school administrators and athletic facility designers should strive for safety rather than forcing students to choose between their own safety and participating in sports.

The argument will begin at 7 p.m. at the Old Charles City Middle School auditorium. (Go to the Iowa Judicial Branch website to find details on the Charles City arguments and to read briefs in the case.)

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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