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At about 10:57 p.m. on May16, 42-year-old Rick Garrity was exiting Wrigley Field in Chicago when he apparently tried to climb a 36-inch rail on a ramp leading from the upper deck, according to Chicago Cubs and police officials. He fell over the rail, plunged a significant depth and died the next day from his injuries, becoming the latest death from falling at America's big stadiums.
"That is a very tragic event that sadly has been seen far too often over the last several years," said Bob Gorman, co-author of the book Death at the Ballpark.
It's still quite rare: Out of hundreds of millions of fans to attend Major League Baseball parks since 1969, there have been 25 deaths from falling in stadiums, including some involving inebriated victims and suicide, Gorman said.
In this case, the Cubs asserted the rail and its height did not contribute to the man's death at Wrigley. But what if the rail had been 42 inches or higher, as safety experts say they should be? Would that have deterred his actions and the accident?
In December 2015, Major League Baseball recommended its stadiums extend the netting that backs up the home plate area to the near end of the dugouts in an attempt to better project fans from foul balls or flying or broken bats, and a handful of teams have done so. But the questions regarding rail height feed into a classic debate about safety regulations and the responsibility of individuals: Is it worth raising rails or adding other safety measures to sometimes save people from themselves, even if such incidents are rare?
A similar issue is playing out in court in Atlanta over the heights of rails in high seating areas.
MLB has "a responsibility to reasonably address the safety of their millions of loyal fans," said a lawsuit filed on behalf of the family of Greg Murrey, who died after falling from the upper deck at Turner Field in Atlanta in 2015. "Raising the height of rails to 42inches and/or installing netting can be done for a small fraction of the billions of dollars in revenues generated each year by media, corporate sponsorships, and ticket sales."
In that incident, a toxicology report concluded Murrey was legally intoxicated when he died. The Atlanta Braves and MLB said the victim assumed the risk and was responsible for his injuries. They also noted that the rail heights there -- at 30 inches -- exceeded minimum code standards for seated areas.
"Murrey proximately caused his own injuries and subsequent death," MLB's legal response states.
'We're honestly beside ourselves'
At Wrigley Field, Cubs spokesman Julian Green said the rail in question had a height that was "grandfathered in" and "up to code" at the time it was built, though when that was is not clear. The current railing height standard is a minimum of 42 inches in places where there's a fall of at least 30 inches, according to the International Building Code cited by the lawsuit against the Braves.
An exception for this standard at stadiums is in seated areas, such as the front rows of upper decks, where rails are allowed to be as low as 26 inches high to avoid obstructing views from those seats. That's why the Braves and other parks can say they exceed the building code minimums for front-row seats if the rails in front of them are about 30 inches tall.
The incident at Wrigley was in the back of the stadium and not in a seated area -- and it's unknown whether a higher rail there would have deterred it. Details are sketchy because of an apparent lack of witnesses. Garrity's father, Richard, told USA TODAY Sports his son "wasn't a climber" but still doesn't know exactly what happened. Rick Garrity was married with two young children. There has been no official indication that alcohol was a factor.
"Hopefully someday we're going to know what happened," his father said. "We're honestly beside ourselves here, and it's still fresh."
If the Cubs wanted to raise the barrier there to reduce risk, they could, although apparently nothing previously suggested they should have.
"Based on the statistical evidence, there's no reason to increase railings given the incredibly small incidents of problems, and even this one (at Wrigley) doesn't fit the pattern of the very few other problems," said Steven Adelman, an attorney and expert on event safety.
The plaintiffs' attorneys who are suing the Braves see it differently. They argue in court documents that raising the front-row rails to 42 inches would have prevented Murrey's death.
They also cite actions taken by the Texas Rangers, who raised front-row railings at Globe Life Park in Arlington to at least 42inches after a falling death in 2011. In that case, a fan named Shannon Stone fell over a 33-inch rail trying to catch a ball for his son. It cost the team $1.1 million to raise those rails, and the stadium has had no falling deaths since.
Jake Pauls, a building safety consultant and ergonomist, advocates for 42-inch rail heights as a "bare minimum" for safety. That generally would reach the stomach of someone who is 5-9, the average height of an American man.
"In recent years, I have advocated a somewhat higher minimum, based on increasing stature and the age of the science behind the 42-inch criterion, which was in the mid-1970s," he said.
The suit against the Braves says the club and MLB "chose to rely on a 1920s-era building code" that allows rails to be as low as 26inches if spectators are seated. It notes that this was designed mainly for theaters and symphony halls to set railings where they wouldn't impede patrons' views.
'You can bubble-wrap everyone'
Other sports have had similar rare fall issues involving front-row railings, including at a college football game at the Georgia Dome in 2012, when a fan died after falling over a 33-inch railing. Authorities then said alcohol was a factor. But just by virtue of MLB's number of games -- 81 regular-season home games a team -- the league is prone to more accidents.
Despite some falls, the suit against the Braves said "no other baseball team indicated it would follow the Rangers' lead and raise all railings in front of seating sections to 42 inches."
They don't have to, because 26inches is the minimum requirement in those areas, according to the building code. The bigger issue is whether it's worthwhile to make them higher.
It's not uncommon for stadiums to have front-row railings lower than 42 inches, although only a few baseball teams responded to a survey from USA TODAY Sports about rail heights, including three that only would say their stadium meets or exceeds code requirements. They declined to answer questions about whether they were lower than 42inches. Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia has ramp rail heights of 48 inches. Rails in seating areas there are 32 inches and angled inward.
In Atlanta, Turner Field had three falling deaths since it opened in 1997, one of which was ruled a suicide. The Braves have a new stadium, SunTrust Park, which opened this year. But the team and the stadium builder didn't return messages this week asking about rail heights at the new facility. Current litigation might complicate their ability to talk about it.
As part of the lawsuit, Braves executive John Schuerholz was asked in a deposition in November if he "wouldn't want to consider what happened at other major league parks in planning SunTrust Park."
"Yeah, I don't know. That's not how I think," Schuerholz replied, according to the transcript.
Schuerholz also noted then that Turner Field's 30-inch rail heights exceeded the minimum code and that Murrey's death was a rare incident. Attorneys for the Murrey family, Michael Caplan and Michael Neff, said they could not discuss the case publicly.
No trial date has been set.
"One can always increase safety measures," said Adelman, the event safety expert. "You always can. It's literally true. Ultimately, you can bubble-wrap everyone and make them sit in their living rooms not doing anything. That's the safest thing of all."
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