Play Ball: Minnesota Baseball Litigation Lore
This article was published in the 2012 The National Pastime.
The State of Minnesota has had its share of highlights and lowlights on the baseball diamonds throughout the state. They range from the ecstasy of the World Series victories in 1987 and 1991 to the nadir of the Twins agonizing 99-loss season last year, its second-worst ever since moving from Washington.
Baseball has also been a recurring subject in the courtrooms of this state. For more than a century, Minnesota jurisprudence has addressed issues relating to the national pastime with cases ranging from injuries to Little Leaguers and spectators to the travails of major league owners, stadiums, teams, and players.
Many of the cases concern topics that are unique to baseball while others raise issues that cut a broad contemporary swath. Here’s look at some of the more notable cases that have contributed to the litigation lore of baseball in Minnesota.
Minnesota’s earliest baseball-related litigation was fought over an issue that is as contemporary as today’s troubled economy: job security. In Egan v. Winnipeg Baseball Club, baseball manager Ned Egan sued his team for unpaid salary after he was fired in mid-season.1
The case was unusual because the ball club he sued was centered some 60 miles north of the border in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The manager, who also doubled as a player, was ousted with 2 1⁄2 months to go in the season, ostensibly because he was too ill to continue managing.
In 1905 the State Supreme Court affirmed a jury verdict for the manager, noting that the contract was “something more than the ordinary contract for personal services.” The early twentieth century jurists exhibited familiarity with baseball terminology in reaching this conclusion, observing that a term in the contract proscribing the team from giving the manager a “release” was equivalent “in baseball circles” to barring a “discharge.”
SPECTATOR INJURY RISKS
Fast forward nearly a century to Midway Stadium, home of the minor league St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association, where in 2010 a spectator was hit by a foul ball while returning to the stands from the restroom. The Minnesota Court of Appeals applied an age-old doctrine of assumption of risk to bar the fan from pursuing a claim for his injuries. The ruling in Alwin v. St. Paul Saints Baseball Club, Inc.2 is instructive not only about baseball, but offers some lessons about tort law in general. In affirming the Ramsey County trial judge’s decision, the court held that the claimant’s claim was precluded by the “well established” principle of assumption of risk.
Returning from a bathroom break late in the game, the claimant was walking near a concession stand, which blocked his view of the field. He was struck in the mouth by a foul ball, knocking out a tooth and requiring extensive dental procedures. He sued the Saints, claiming negligence for failing to provide some type of protective netting around the concession area.
The Court of Appeals first pondered whether the team owed the spectator a “duty,” concluding that the ballpark has only a “limited duty to offer the spectator the choice between screened in seats and seats without protective netting” and refused to extend this obligation to non-seating areas of the ballpark. The spectator’s claim that the restroom and concession areas should be protected because “he could not see the batter or game from that area” raised the issue whether he “assumed a risk inherent to the game of baseball,” even though he was not seated in the bleachers when he was struck by the foul ball.
The court reasoned that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk barred that claim, although it recognized the “difficulty at times” in applying the principle in tort cases. Because sporting events necessarily “present inherent risks that are well known to the public,” anyone who attends those events assumes the risk of injury. Citing numerous cases from Minnesota and elsewhere involving injuries to spectators at baseball games, as well as those attending other sporting events, the court refused to follow the rationale of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Jones v. Three Rivers Mgmt. Corp., which permitted a spectator to sue after he was hit by a batted ball during batting practice while standing in an interior walkway rather than seated in the stadium.3 The Pennsylvania case was distinguishable because the ballpark’s duty was premised on the “specific architectural feature of the stadium.” Midway Stadium, where the Saints play, does not have such a “distinctive architectural feature.” The Court feared that following the Jones case would lead to a “slippery slope of drawing a line between risk and protected areas” of a stadium.
The most significant baseball related litigation in Minnesota was unquestionably the Metrodome lease case which guaranteed the Twins' existence after the club was tottering on the brink of extinction at the beginning of this millennium. In late 2001, to bolster its financial condition and leverage with the players union, Major League Baseball was considering eliminating at least two teams under the rubric of “contraction.” Litigation brought by the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns and operates the Metrodome, however, prevented the Twins from this fate. The Commission sued the Twins and Major League Baseball for an injunction to require the team to honor the remaining year of its lease. Hennepin County District Court Judge Harry Crump granted the injunction because of the “irreparable harm” which would have resulted if the Twins exited early and the “public interest” in assuring that the team play out the final year of its lease. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, in Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission v. the Twins Partnership.4 It held that Judge Crump properly applied the “five-factors” test under Dahlberg Bros. v. Ford Motor Company.5
In its decision, the Appellate tribunal held that the trial judge correctly found that there was a “substantial likelihood that the Commission would prevail on the merits.” Specific performance, requiring the Twins to play at the Metrodome, was supported by the “plain language” of the lease, which authorized “any remedy allowed by law or equity.” The contention by the Twins that the law does not favor “a government mandate for continued operation of a private enterprise” was outweighed by the public financing that went into the Metrodome, which is “operated for the benefit of the public.” The Supreme Court declined to reverse the ruling, leaving the injunction intact indefinitely. As a result, Major League Baseball agreed not to eliminate the Twins for three years. This delay, along with increased profitability in baseball coming out of the 2001 recession, effectively ended the contraction scheme. The club played in the Metrodome for the rest of the decade, giving its ownership enough time to work out the necessary arrangements for a new baseball stadium. The ruling by the Appellate Court, upholding the lower court injunction, however, did not end all the litigation. An ancillary case brought by the Star Tribune newspaper and other media seeking to intervene and modify a protective order seeking access to various documents produced in the case was rejected in Star Tribune v. Minnesota Twins Partnership.6
The effort to obtain access to discovery documents exchanged by the parties in the litigation was rebuffed under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, common law, and the First Amendment. Affirming another ruling of Judge Crump, the Appellate Court held that because the media “did not have an interest” relating to the discovery materials in the case or the financial information filed under seal, they were not allowed to intervene in the underlying proceeding.
The contraction calumny followed short-lived litigation brought by the Minnesota Attorney General, looking into potential antitrust implications of the Twins’ arrangement with Major League Baseball. The Attorney General’s inquiry into antitrust issues was squelched by the state Supreme Court in Minnesota Twins Partnership v. State of Minnesota.7 The court, with one recusal, unanimously ruled that the Twins did not have to respond to the investigation because the sport is not subject to federal and state antitrust laws. It relied upon the oft-criticized, but never repudiated, rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court holding the game to be exempt from antitrust litigation.
Long before the Metrodome was ever conceived, a big league ballpark was envisioned, but never constructed, a few miles outside of downtown Minneapolis at the intersection of then US Highway 12 (now Highway I-394) and Minnesota Highway 100 in St. Louis Park in the mid-1950s in an attempt to lure the then New York Giants to relocate to the Twin Cities. The land was set aside for a proposed stadium and contained a covenant restricting the sale of food or liquor on the property except in connection with baseball games or other recreational events.
Two decades later, long after the Giants had bypassed Minnesota and moved to San Francisco, a successor owner of the property sought to remove the restriction on the sale of food and liquor in order to construct restaurants and bars in the area, where they now proliferate. In Matter of Turners Crossroad Development Co., the Minnesota Supreme Court struck the restraints on grounds that the “covenant has no further value and cannot be enforced” by the original purpose.8 It noted that the original restaurant which imposed the restriction as a noncompete clause was no longer in business. Thus, the covenant is of no further value to and cannot be enforced by the original vendor. Further, the limitation was invalid under Minn. Stat. §500.020, subd. 2, which renders restrictive covenants inoperative after 30 years.
The Metrodome itself, which the Twins left after 2009, was the source of its share of litigation. Prior to its construction in 1981, in Lifteau v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission,9 a Washington County bar and restaurant owner challenged the statute creating the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which was empowered to select, design, and construct a new or remodeled sports facility in the Twin Cities. The authorizing legislation provided that the stadium was to be funded by bonds issued by the Metropolitan Council. The bonds would be paid off, in part, by a 2% on-sale liquor tax throughout most of the seven-county metropolitan area. The Ramsey County District Court deemed the legislation invalid, but the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the plaintiffs various claims: that the title of the law did not properly express its subject; that the anticipated stadium was not a “public purpose;” that the statute improperly singled out the Twin Cities metropolitan area for imposition of the liquor tax, while impermissibly exempting three municipalities; and that the law was not adopted by the requisite three-fifths vote of the Legislature required for public debt.
The Court rejected the challenge to the law’s title because the “broad coverage” the news media gave to the law was sufficient “to alert legislators and the public” to its contents. Construction of a sports stadium was regarded as a “public purpose,” even though a 1923 Minnesota case held to the contrary. Observing that the overwhelming weight of modern authority in other jurisdictions regard athletic facilities as proper subjects of public financing, the Court took judicial notice of “the important part that professional sports plays in our social life.” The Court also upheld the Legislatures’ determination that the tax should be imposed on the metropolitan area because “the benefits [of the stadium] would be primarily metropolitan” and sustained the exclusion of three small communities as “a reasonable exercise of legislative discretion.” Finally, the Court approved the issuance of bonds by less than a three-fifths vote of the Legislature because they were “more closely related to revenue bonds” than to general obligation bonds, which trigger the 60 percent requirement.
Another attempt to doom the Dome failed the following year. In Eakman v. Brutger, the Court affirmed a decision of the Hennepin County District Court denying an injunction against constructing the Dome.10
Raising issues concerning the legality of nearly every aspect of the stadium project, two subsequent actions were brought regarding construction of the Dome. One was a declaratory judgment action by the Minnesota Vikings in Hennepin County and the other was a challenge in Ramsey County to the determination to build the stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The two cases were consolidated for trial and eventually reached the Supreme Court in Minnesota Vikings Football Club v. Metropolitan Council.11 The trial court, in an extensive ruling, upheld the validity of the project, including the Stadium Commission’s lease with the Minnesota Twins which included an escape clause permitting the baseball club to move the franchise if the Twins did not have an average attendance of 1.4 million for three consecutive years. None of these substantive issues came before the Supreme Court. Instead, it upheld the lower court’s decision on the grounds that the challengers failed to file a timely appeal after their counsel stipulated that an appeal would be brought within three days of the trial court’s ruling.
Having withstood challenges to its construction and leasing, on the eve of its opening the Dome next had to confront yet another challenge to its financing mechanism by a group of Minneapolis taxpayers seeking a referendum on a proposed amendment to the Minneapolis City Charter. The amendment, if approved by the voters, would have repealed a hotel-motel liquor tax passed by the city in 1979 to finance construction of the stadium.
The Hennepin County District Court ruled against the taxpayers. The Supreme Court affirmed in early 1982, declaring in Davies v. City of Minneapolis the proposal a “manifestly unconstitutional” impairment of the contract rights of those who in 1979 had purchased the $55 million in revenue bonds used to finance the stadium. 12 These bonds were issued after the Court’s decision in the Lifteau case. The Court in Davies reasoned that the liquor tax was “an important security provision in the bondholder’s contracts,” and elimination of it, as envisioned by the proposed charter amendment, would infringe the prohibition against impairment of contracts of the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, 10.
ADVERTISING AND RIGHTS ISSUES
Even the scoreboard had to overcome a financial challenge. To finance its construction, the Stadium Commission permitted the scoreboard manufacturer to negotiate the exclusive right to advertise on it in exchange for providing the scoreboard at no cost. As part of the deal, the Commission also excluded any competitor of scoreboard advertisers from advertising in the stadium. WCCO obtained the exclusive arrangement; rival television station KSTP then challenged the procedure and advertising ban on several grounds, including violation of the Minnesota public bidding laws and infringement of its constitutional rights of freedom of speech and equal protection.
The issues were decided in to separate proceedings, with KSTP losing both ends of the judicial doubleheader. The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals certified the public bidding issue to the Minnesota Supreme Court under Minn. Stat. § 480.061, which ruled that the scoreboard arrangement was not subject to public bidding requirements, nor was it an unlawful delegation of the Commission’s powers. A few months later, the Eight Circuit rejected KSTP’s constitutional claims in Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc. v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission.13 The Court determined the exclusivity provisions to be “reasonable and content-neutral” and that the policy did not “discriminate against either” WCCO or KSTP.
More significant than the amount of advertising in the Metrodome was the advertising on television and radio broadcasts. Watching baseball on television is probably the most prevalent way in which Minnesotans become involved with the professional game. In Midwest Communications, Inc. v. Minnesota Twins, Inc., the corporate owner of WCCO television challenged an arrangement between the Twins and the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars to market their telecast rights jointly.14 WCCO alleged a number of federal and state antitrust claims as well as breach of contract and tortious interference with contract assertions. The jury ruled in favor of WCCO on the antitrust issues, but notwithstanding the verdict, Judge Robert Renner granted a judgment for the Twins, and the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Eighth Circuit held that WCCO lacked standing to assert antitrust claims because “WCCO has not identified any threatened injury to itself, much less an antitrust injury.” It also upheld the lower court’s determination that a right of first refusal claimed by WCCO as assignee was invalid because the contract creating the right was not assignable. The moguls are not the only ones who litigate over the finances of baseball.
The collapse of the Metrodome in the fall of 2010 (after the Twins had moved out but when the stadium was still used by the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League) following two prior deflations did not precipitate major litigation. But the earlier deflations did, spurring claims by the Commission and its insurers against parties involved in constructing the Dome, including the company that provided management services. The Hennepin County District Court ruled in favor of the construction management company regarding the two roof collapses and ordered the Commission to reimburse the legal expenses incurred in litigation, pursuant to a contractual indemnification provision. With respect to reimbursement of the legal fees, The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed in Century Indemnity Co. v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, ruling that the trial court erred in finding the indemnification agreement to be unambiguous. The provision of the contract requiring the Commission to reimburse the construction manager “for legal expenses and suits relating to the Project” did not constitute a “sweeping indemnity clause.”15
Another defect, leading to the death of a utility repair worker at the Dome, ended unfavorably for the decedent’s widow. In Graves v. McConnell, the widow of an employee of the company that supplied steam for heating buildings in downtown Minneapolis brought suit after high-pressure steam, released into a connecting facility where employees were working near the Dome, burned and killed two crew members, one of them her husband.16 The widow sued the plant operator on grounds that he was grossly negligent in checking the whereabouts of the crew after they had serviced a steam outage at the Metrodome. The plant operator had authorized the release of steam into an interconnection because he had thought the crew had left the area after completing repairs on the Metrodome when, in fact, they were still in the vicinity.
Affirming the ruling of the Hennepin County District Court, the appellate court upheld dismissal of the lawsuit. The claimant had recovered benefits under the worker’s compensation law and was now suing a co-employee. Co-employees are generally “immune from liability” unless the co-employee had a “personal duty toward the employee and acted with gross negligence.” The plant operator was engaged in “general administrative responsibility,” which did not “translate into a personal duty” owed to the deceased member of the repair crew.
Tax topics also have been litigated in baseball-related lawsuits in Minnesota. In Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission v. County of Hennepin, the State Supreme Court held that a state statute exempting the space in the Metrodome leased by the Commission to the Twins and Vikings from property taxes did not violate Equal Protection or the “single subject” clause of the Minnesota State constitution.17 The court deemed the use of the facility “inherently and functionally limited to two major occupants,” the Twins and Vikings.
In 1993, the Twins failed to convince the tax court that its novelty items should be exempt from the Minnesota sales and use tax. In Minnesota Twins Partnership v. Commissioner of Revenue, the Tax Court rejected the Twins’ contention that novelty items that are distributed to fans who pay taxable admission charges (a cost included in the standard ticket price) constituted “purchase for resale.” The Twins argued they were not taxable to the club because they were given without charge to fans who bought tickets for the games.18 The court held that the items were subject to the sales and use tax because the Twins “did not resell [items] to game attendees, but instead gave the items away.”
The Twins ballparks and their surroundings have also been the source of criminal wrongdoing. In Schreiber v. Commissioner of Revenue, the tax court upheld a ruling of the Commissioner of revenue assessing a controlled substance tax and penalty of $440,000 against a man found in possession of 1,100 grams of cocaine.19
Initially, the man and his wife had planned to fly to Las Vegas to pick up the cocaine. After making telephone calls from the Metrodome prior to leaving, however, the man indicated to a friend that his wife could not accompany him and asked the friend to do so. The two men picked up the drugs in Las Vegas and brought them back to the Twin Cities where they were apprehended, with the cocaine found in a man’s suitcase. The taxpayer—who was the drug dealer and was incarcerated for the offense—was subject to the tax, notwithstanding his claims that it was his companion who was carrying them. Both parties pointed fingers at the other and disclaimed knowledge of the drugs. But most of the items in the suitcase belonged to the taxpayer, who alone had keys to it. Because he was “either in actual or in constructive possession of the drugs,” he was liable for the controlled substance tax stemming from the arrangements initially made at the Metrodome.
In another case, the imposition of two concurrent sentences for aggravated robbery and assault stemming from an attack near the Metrodome was disallowed in State v. Norregaard. Initially, the defendant was convicted of aggravated robbery and third degree assault.20 But the State Supreme Court cut back on the sentence, holding that the assailant could not be sentenced for both third degree assault and robbery because they occurred as part of a “single behavioral incident.” Therefore, his sentence of 70 months was reduced to 49.
Twins players have had their share of legal disputes, ranging from manager Billy Martin punching out pitcher Dave Boswell at a hotel bar in Detroit in 1969 to Martin getting into a fight with a marshmallow salesman at a bar along the Bloomington I-494 strip a few years later while managing an opponent of the Twins. But the pugnacious Martin isn’t the only Twin personality involved in legal brouhaha’s.
In Uhlaender v. Hendricksen, the Federal Court in Minneapolis upheld the “proprietary interest” of Major League Baseball players in their identities and sporting accomplishments.21 The case, brought by Twins center fielder Ted Uhlaender, sought to enjoin a manufacturer of a “scientific” baseball board game from using players’ names and statistical records without payment of royalty or licensing fees to the players.
A federal judge agreed with the players, holding that a player’s “name, likeness, statistics, and other personal characteristics, is the fruit of his labors and is a type of property” entitled to protection from unauthorized commercial use by others. The Court rejected the claim of an unlawful antitrust conspiracy by the ballplayers’ trade association in demanding royalty fees for use of the players’ names and likenesses. Once a ballplayer, always a ballplayer, in the eyes of the law. The case fueled the development of the now-established “right of publicity” for celebrities, entertainers and other well-known personages.22
In Marshall v. Marshall, former ace relief pitcher Mike Marshall—whose career included a stint in Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s—and his wife disputed whether his deferred compensation plan from Major League Baseball constituted marital property for purposes of their marital dissolution.23 The wife had agreed to waive any rights to the ballplayer’s income after their separation early in 1981, and the ex-Twin claimed that this post-separation deferred compensation constituted “income,” and thus was covered by the waiver.
The State Court of Appeals agreed with the former reliever’s spouse, viewing the deferred compensation as “more analogous to a pension plan than to income,” and it affirmed the lower court’s equal distribution of the proceeds to the former pitcher and his wife.
LITTLE LEAGUE ISSUES
Little League and sandlot experiences often provide lasting legacies and, occasionally memorable litigation, such as United States Jaycees v. McClure, a case that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.24 In 1981, the Minnesota Supreme Court relied heavily upon a Little League baseball case in deciding whether the Jaycees is a “public accommodation” which must allow women to join. The Court found an “instructive analogy” in a ruling by a New Jersey appellate court that Little League baseball was a public accommodation under that state’s civil rights statute, and thus girls must be allowed to play.
The Minnesota Supreme Court viewed the Little League case as properly focusing upon whether an organization “engages in activities in places to which an unselected public is given an open invitation.” Relying on the Little League analogy, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that the Jaycees fell within this description and, thus, were subject to suit under the Human Rights Act by women excluded from its chapters in the Twin Cities. In Roberts v. United States Jaycees25 the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently agreed, brushing aside constitutional claims of associational rights and privacy concerns advanced by the Jaycees.
As the Minnesota Twins club embarks on its sixth decade, its members likely hope that their victories—and even losses—in the national pastime take place on the field, not in the courtroom. But it’s probably inevitable that Minnesota’s baseball litigation legacy will be long lasting and extended by new cases and controversies.
Lawsuits are a pastime that, like baseball, is not past its time.
MARSHALL H. TANICK is an attorney with the law firm of Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen, P.A. in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park. He has lectured and written extensively on baseball law subjects and has represented amateur and professional baseball players, coaches, managers, executives, and umpires.
- 1. 96 Minn. 345, 104 N.W. 947 (1905).
- 2. 2003 WL 22952707 (Minn. Ct. App. December, 16, 2003).
- 3. 394 A.2d. 546 (Pa. 1978).
- 4. 638 N.W.2d 214 (Minn. App. 2002), rev. denied (Minn. February. 4, 2002).
- 5. 272 Minn. 264.137 N.W.2d 314 (1965).
- 6. 659 N.W. 2d 287 (Minn. App. 2003).
- 7. 592 N.W.2d 847 (Minn. 1999).
- 8. E.g. Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972); Federal Baseball Club v. National League, 259 U.S. 200 (1922).
- 9. 277 N.W.2d 364 (Minn. 1979).
- 10. 285 N.W.2d 95 (Minn. 1979).
- 11. 289 N.W.2d 426 (1979).
- 12. 316 N.W.2d 498 (Minn. 1982).
- 13. 797 F.2d 552 (8th Cir. 1986).
- 14. 779 F.2d 444 (8th Cir. 1985).
- 15. 1993 WL 35930 (Minn. App. 1993) rev. denied (Minn. April 7, 1993).
- 16. 2000 WL 719753 (Minn. App. 2000) (unpublished).
- 17. 478 N.W.2d 487 (Minn. 1991).
- 18. 1993 WL 359300 (Minn. App. 1993) (unpublished) rev. denied (Minn. April 17, 1993).
- 19. 1991 WL 198966 (T.C. 1991).
- 20. 384 N.W.2d 449 (Minn. 1986).
- 21. 316 F.Supp. 1277 (D. Minn. 1970).
- 22. 1991 WL 13728 (D. Minn. 1991); See also M.B. Nimmer, “The Right of Publicity,” 19 Law & Contemp. Probs. 203 (1954).
- 23. 350 N.W.2d 463 (Minn. App. 1984).
- 24. 305 N.W.2d 764 (Minn. 1981).
- 25. 468 U.S. 609 (1984).