By MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/Web editor of Risk & Insurance®
When 39-year-old Shannon Stone fell to his death at a Texas Rangers baseball game on July 7, American sport fans were shocked. The sad thing, however, is that the incident isn't isolated. According to one expert cited by the New York Times, as many as 21 sports fans have died from falls at Major League ballparks since 1892.
Thankfully, each falling incident, and other high-profile, high-severity cases at professional stadiums around the country, are learning moments for big-league risk managers and others involved in spectator safety.
"We don't take anything for granted that it could never happen to us," said Paul Vogelgesang, vice president of risk management for the Honda Center and the NHL's Anaheim Ducks.
After an unfortunate incident happens elsewhere, he said, he and his staff analyze those situations very thoroughly and see if it is applicable to them and what they could do to prevent them.
Part of the Honda Center's training for ushers and usher supervisors involves teaching how to keep spectators from standing on seats and railings. Another step is to stop holding events at the stadium that could lead to problems.
Vogelgesang recalled a promotion the Honda Center once had where employees blasted t-shirts to fans using "bazookas." Overzealous fans would stretch and reach for these "$5 t-shirts" over railings, Vogelgesang recounted, so risk management met with marketing, promotions, advertising and other staff and decided to end that kind of promotion.
Stone died reaching for a ball tossed by outfielder Josh Hamilton. Major League Baseball has placed the incident under review.
"We will carefully review this incident with our clubs to continue to ensure a safe environment for our fans," Major League Baseball wrote in its official statement following the Rangers incident.
It is not only such a high-profile, high-severity incident, however, that tends to keep sports and stadium management risk managers busy. Other top spectator-related exposures for sporting venues can involve risks that occur at higher frequency, and at severity levels sufficient enough to keep risk managers up at night.
Bob Murphy, global sports and events practice leader at insurance brokerage Marsh in Philadelphia, said venues and sports teams spend a significant amount of time on liquor liability and crowd control and safety. These two issues, he said, account for many of the claims, certainly the larger ones.
If you had to put another exposure on the list, add baseballs and hockey pucks straying into the stands.
"You have an inordinate number of injuries that occur when they get into the stands," Murphy said.
In Japanese ballparks, Plexiglas is placed all along the lower level to stop foul balls. In the United States, such steps--which would interfere with the intimate feel of modern ballparks--have been "unanimously rejected," Murphy said. Generally, teams are protected from liability from stray balls, though. Where they are at risk, the broker said, is if they show gross negligence in the first-aid care they provide a stricken fan.
The No. 1 exposure when it comes to spectators, though, is slips and falls.
At the Honda Center, Vogelgesang employs a "very aggressive" housekeeping program, using trained ushers with nearby "panic buttons" to call in housekeeping to clean up spills immediately, as well as better lighting.
One thing Murphy can help clients with here is in contracts with third-party vendors that could be liable for spills.
"We spend a lot of time on tightening up those contracts," he said.
Still, whether it's slips on hotdog buns, inebriated fisticuffs or tragic tumbles from the stands, not all claims can be prevented.
"Even with a lot of precautions and a lot of training, it's unfortunate that some of these accidents still occur," Vogelgesang said of the appalling death of Shannon Stone.
July 18, 2011
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