verdicts-and-settlements-article

Hoffman v. Borough of Sewickley

$1.7 million Verdict

Date of Verdict: Feb. 1.

Court and Case No.: C.P. Allegheny No. GD-16-004447.

Judge: Patrick Connelly.

Type of Action: Personal injury.

Injuries: Brain injury.

Plaintiffs Counsel: Alan Perer of Swensen & Perer, Pittsburgh.

Plaintiffs Experts: Gil Fried, West Hartford, Connecticut, sports and recreation expert; Dr. Stephanie Greene, neurosurgery, Pittsburgh.

Defense Counsel:  Dennis Mulvihill of Robb Leonard Mulvihill, Pittsburgh.

Defense Experts: Dr. Thomas Sawyer, sports law expert, Muncie, Indiana; Lee Martin, architecture expert, Dublin, Ohio.

Comment:

An Allegheny County jury has awarded $1.7 million to the family of a boy who was struck in the head by a foul ball during a youth baseball game and suffered a brain injury.

The verdict came after an eight-day trial before Judge Patrick Connelly in the case Hoffman v. Borough of Sewickley. Along with awarding the money, the jury also found liability against two athletic associations and the municipality that owned the field where the injury occurred.

The plaintiff, Zachary Hoffman, was hit by the ball after it flew through a large gap in the fence of the dugout that his team was in.

According to attorney Alan Perer of Swensen & Perer, who represented the Hoffmans, the jury was likely persuaded by evidence that a similar incident occurred at the same field a year before, and that none of the dugout fences on the other fields where the teams regularly played had gaps that would have allowed for a foul ball to pass through.

“We’re so happy with the jury’s verdict and that he’s going to get the best care he needs on an ongoing basis,” Perer said.

According to the verdict sheet, the jury found the Quaker Valley Recreation Association 50 percent liable, the Borough of Sewickley, which owned and operated the field, 40 percent liable, and the Avonworth Athletic Association 10 percent liable.

Thomas, Thomas & Hafer attorney John Giunta, who represented the Avonworth Athletic Association, which operated the team that Hoffman played for, said his client had reached a confidential settlement with the Hoffmans after closings, but prior to the verdict. He declined to comment further about the case.

According to court records, Hoffman was 11 in the spring of 2015 when he was hit on the head by the ball. Hoffman had been playing for the Avonworth Athletic Association against a Quaker Valley Recreation Association team. The teams were playing on a field that was owned and maintained by the Borough of Sewickley, and it was an away game for Hoffman’s team.

The dugout was largely covered in wire fencing, but according to Hoffman’s pretrial memo, there was an 11-foot-wide opening in the fence. The memo further noted that the first base line was less than 18 feet away from the player bench within the dugout.

The Hoffmans contended the gap in the fence went against Little League customs of having the dugout entirely fenced in. The plaintiffs also contended there were similar incidents where foul balls had struck players sitting on the dugout bench, including one where a player was hit in the chest a year before.

The field also failed to meet safety standards, and the teams further failed to provide sufficient warnings about the possibility of foul balls flying into the dugout, the Hoffmans alleged. After the incident, Hoffman was taken to Sewickley Hospital where a CT scan showed he had a traumatic intracerebral bleed. He underwent a craniotomy that night.

According to his pretrial memo, Hoffman has suffered headaches since the accident, and he also has become more aggressive and has had difficulty controlling his emotions. The memo also noted that Hoffman has had trouble at school and has required special education and treatment.

In its pretrial memo, the borough and Quaker Valley Recreation Association said that being hit by a fly ball is a known risk of baseball, and that the field met the National Little League’s rules regarding dugout fences.

Although the defendants each also contended that they should be immune from the suit, the jury also found that their conduct fell “substantially below” the generally practiced standards, which allowed the plaintiffs to overcome the immunity claims.

More than $1 million of the jury’s award was for future medical expenses. The jury also awarded slightly more than $100,000 for past medical expenses, and $566,000 for past and future pain and suffering.

Dennis Mulvihill of Robb Leonard Mulvihill, who represented the borough and Quaker Valley Recreation Association, did not return a call seeking comment.