Lawsuits, from the Laughable to Legitimate

Every so often, a lawsuit is filed that prompts reactions ranging from head-scratching to soul-searching to full-throated cries of "What's this world coming to?" This is one of those times. The 250-word story that quickly ricocheted around the Internet late last month had to do with a middle-aged New Jersey woman, Elizabeth Lloyd, who two years ago was struck in the face by a baseball and is now suing the Little Leaguer who threw it. Catcher Matthew Migliaccio, 11 years old at the time (now 13 and pictured below), was warming up a pitcher and overthrew him, striking Lloyd as she sat at a picnic table near the fenced-in bullpen. Lloyd's suit, which alleges that the boy's actions were negligent and careless through "engaging in inappropriate physical and/or sporting activity" near her, seeks more than $150,000 in damages to cover medical costs and an undefined amount for pain and suffering.

LittleLeagueCatcher.jpgLittleLeagueCatcher.jpgPhoto courtesy of Asbury Park PressIs suing a wild-throwing Little Leaguer the very definition of frivolous? Many people think so. And yet, for every sports- or recreation-related lawsuit laughed out of court, you find a defendant snagged on a valid point of law. Here's a compendium, assisted by Google, Lexis-Nexis and especially the Marquette Sports Law Review's 2011 survey of court decisions, of America's most frivolous recent lawsuits - or are they?

• Samantha Sanches' suit against Carrollton-Farmers Branch (Texas) Independent School District claiming sex discrimination and retaliation under Title IX got all the way to the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit before being tossed out by two very annoyed circuit judges. The road to the courts began when Sanches started dating the ex-boyfriend of a senior cheerleader, who posted inappropriate photos on her Facebook page. After Sanches' mother reported the photos to school administrators, a schoolwide conspiracy (Sanches' mother claimed) was touched off, the purpose of which was to deny Sanches a place on the cheerleading squad. "Reduced to its essentials," wrote one of the presiding judges, "this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad. It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter, that has no place in federal court or any other court."

• B.G., a minor, was injured when she was thrown from a golf cart at a teammate's grandparent's home during a six-hour break between volleyball tournament games. Kevin and Maureen Griffin filed a personal-injury action against the grandparents/property owners; two mothers of B.G.'s volleyball teammates; the team's coach; and Team Indiana Volleyball Inc. The trial court ruled, and the Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed, that neither TIV nor the coach (who was taking a nap at the time, having told his team to avoid potential injurious behaviors) owed a duty to B.G. during the time that the team was on break between tournament sessions.

• Ann Reilly was injured when kicked by a horse owned by Michele Leasure during the Wilton (Conn.) Pony Club Horse Trials. At the time she was kicked, she was in the process of washing the horse, Ridley, with water and a sponge at Leasure's request. Reilly's negligence lawsuit named Leasure (who had invited her to attend the event), the Wilton Club, the United States Pony Club and Millstone Properties LLC, owner of the property on which the event took place. Although the plaintiff's fourth amended complaint (that against Leasure) survived court scrutiny on the question of whether Ridley's behavior represents normal or aberrant equine behavior or whether Leasure knew about Ridley's propensity for kicking, the other three defendants have been released from the claim.

• Lewis Pugliese, a P.E. teacher, filed a six-count defamation claim against Mary Grande, an assistant principal at Cheney Technical High School in Manchester, Conn., and Trace Maulucci, mother of a boy on Pugliese's son's baseball team. The lawsuit arose because 12-year-old Jason Maulucci told his mother (and the baseball coach confirmed) that Pugliese approached the coach after practice and yelled at him with regard to Jason, leaving the boy feeling intimidated, frightened and threatened. Trace Maulucci reported the incident to Grande, and the resulting e-mail, written and phone communications between the assistant principal and P.E. teacher, reporting and discussing the mother's claims, were the basis of Pugliese's defamation claim. The Superior Court of Connecticut found against Pugliese, ruling that Grande's investigation into the incident was fair and proper, and that "a reasonable jury cannot find that Maulucci acted with knowledge that her son's statements to her were false, nor that she acted with reckless disregard for the truth."

• Cassie Pfenning, 16 years old when she was struck by a ball while at a golf outing with her grandfather, sued the golfer who hit the ball that struck her; the estate of her grandfather; the Marion, Ind., tavern that promoted the event; and the operator of the golf course. The trial court and appeals court ruled in favor of all four defendants, but the Supreme Court of Indiana reversed summary judgment with regard to the tavern and the grandfather, who left Pfenning to drive the beverage cart which he had volunteered to drive, while he instead joined a shorthanded group of golfers. After three and a half hours working the course, Pfenning was struck in the mouth by an 80-yard drive as she steered the cart toward the eighteenth hole's tee pad from its green. The case against the player who hit the ball was dropped, the court concluding that, "We reject the concept that a participant in a sporting event owes no duty of care to protect others from inherent risks of the sport, but adopt instead the view that summary judgment is proper when the conduct of a sports participant is within the range of ordinary behavior of participants in the sport and therefore is reasonable as a matter of law."

However, the case was allowed to proceed against the tavern and the grandfather (via his estate), "because he brought a minor child who knew nothing about golf or golf course safety to work at a golf event, volunteered her to work on a beverage cart, failed to provide her with safety instructions, and allowed her to work on a cart serving alcoholic beverages," the Supreme Court wrote. "As to the issue of breach of duty, whether it was reasonable for him to subject her to such risks depends upon genuine issues of fact for determination at trial."

In other words, the jury is still out.

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