Jul 14, 2020

Can Masahiro Tanaka Sue Over Head Injury?


Tanaka Likely Has A TBI?

Just over a week ago, baseball saw a traumatic injury caused by a mishap on the field. While training for the Coronavirus-shortened baseball season, pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was crippled after getting struck by a batted ball. This most likely caused a TBI in the Yankee star pitcher.

The AP covered the situation after Tanaka's fellow teammate Aaron Judge hit him with a line drive. A traumatic brain injury takes many forms, including due to issues in sports. A line drive to the head like this is enough to cause a concussion. Repeated concussions can lead to CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Can a Player Sue Due to a TBI?

Under Knight v. Jewett, it is highly doubtful Tanaka can sue MLB if he "assumed the risk" of being injured in the professional sport of baseball, with all its known risks. But like the NFL's football helmet scandal, it remains to be seen if an exception makes clear getting hit it the head by a baseball without proper head protection is or is not a risk in the sport based upon these facts. But here, on its face, Tanaka was engaged in the sport of baseball. So it is unlikely a lawsuit against MLB will hunt, unless...

One thing is certain that bodes poorly for the League. Hardhats are already being used for batters due to batter and runner's risks of being hit by a hard baseball around the mound. So the league is on notice that its employees are at severe risk from baseballs flying around the diamond. Yet, a tiny batted ball falling from the sky with its sun, clouds, wind, and unpredictable weather, is expected to be caught by a player looking up, who is only wearing a softcover and zero face protection.

Obviously, consumers like to buy baseball caps. And MLB knows the players deserve better head protection, not just for batters. But pitchers don't wear batter hardhats, even though depending on skill level, a wooden batted baseball can travel at over 101 miles per hour, and a pitched fastball ball may also exceed 100 miles per hour. All it takes is one ball in the face, and you are dead or seriously hurt. So the League in effect has chosen profits, selling baseball caps, over its players because wearing your favorites team's hard hat is simply not fashionable for a team supporter who wants to buy sports apparel.

There are two separate questions at play here:

  • The first is whether or not a player will sue.
  • The other is whether or not a player has strong moral or legal grounds to sue.

In this case, Tanaka likely will not sue due to his million-dollar contract. Also, the contract itself likely contains a waiver provision, where Tanaka signed away his right to sue for any injuries while engaging in club related sporting activities. However, he would have the full right to do so if there was safety, equipment, or other condition in or around the danger zone that was not inherent in the sport itself. Traumatic brain injuries, especially in sports are now only be understood insofar as frequency and causes are concerned.

Such accidents, especially in contact sports like football, destroyed dozens of lives and careers, such as brain injuries from bad helmets, Junior Seau and his wrongful suicide. In the case of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, it destroyed his career. It likely also played a role in his violent behavior, including committing murder. It possibly also contributed to his suicide.

Tanaka would be well within his rights to sue the Yankees or MLB for the injury. MLB knew or should have known that head injuries from baseball strikes are highly likely to result in death or serious injuries. Repeated exposure to concussions and other TBIs are likely to cause severe short, medium, and long term consequences for MLB as it did for the NFL.

Large sports leagues can no longer avoid the reality: TBIs destroy careers and lives. Just look at MMA star Matt Hughes and his Instagram channel to see the difficulties in brain injury healing. It's a tough row to hoe.

The cost of long term physical and cognitive care would be at the foot of the league. Furthermore, Tanaka would spark a precedent that protects future players from severe head injuries. For more info on TBIs and similar head injury cases, contact me at michael@ehlinelaw.com or keep reading our site for regular updates.

Citation:

"Should baseball players wear helmets?"

"Bat and Batted Ball Fatalities."

"The Physics of Baseball."