Metal bats at issue in little league lawsuit

May 19, 2008 10:49:08 AM PDT
The family of a 14-year-old boy is suing a bat manufacturer, a Little League affiliate and a local retailer after a batted ball hit the boy and left him disabled. The suit alleges that all three entities were aware of the dangers of metal bats. Steven Domalewski, who was 12 when the accident occurred in 2006, was pitching for his baseball team in Wayne, N.J., when a line drive hit him in the chest and sent him into cardiac arrest, causing him to stop breathing for as long as 20 minutes, according to a statement released by his family.

Having spent weeks in the hospital in a coma and on life support, the teen now has extensive brain injury because of the lack of oxygen in the aftermath of the accident. Steven is confined to a wheelchair and needs constant medical attention.

The Domalewski family is suing Hillerich & Bardsby, the parent company of Louisville Slugger, which manufacturers the kind of bat used in the accident. Also named are the local Sports Authority, where the bats are sold, and the New Jersey State Little League, which uses the bats. The family claims that all three were aware of the inherent dangers of the aluminum bats, according to the complaint obtained by ABCNEWS.com.

The lawyer for the Domalewski family, Ernest Fonrzuto, said in a statement that the high-performance, metal bat used during the game "presented an unreasonable risk of injury" and didn't give Domalewski enough time to respond to the ball.

The bat manufacturer, however, disputes the claim, telling ABCNEWS.com that injuries like Steven's are not only rare but have occurred from thrown or pitched balls far more than from batted balls.

"We sympathize with Steven and his family, but our bat is not to blame for his injury," Hillerich & Bradsby said in a statement.

Calls to the Sports Authority were not immediately returned, nor were those made to the New Jersey State Little League.

Metal Bats vs. Wooden Bats, Cost vs. Safety

Critics of metal bats ? the Domalewski family included ? argue that an "arms race" among bat manufacturers has increased the ball's speed off the bats and "changed the dynamics of the game" for the worse.

"Sadly, for many years, the bat manufacturers and youth baseball associations have been aware that these aluminum bats are unreasonably unsafe, yet they have engaged in a business practice that has put profits ahead of safety," Fronzuto said.

Aluminum bats, while more expensive than wood bats, last longer, some sports experts argue, which leads to the leagues resistance to ban them.

"The actual cost of a wooden bat is less expensive but they break," said Stephen Ross, professor of sports law at the Penn State Institute for Sports Law Policy and Research. "The actual cost of equipment over a season for a little league is so significant that the administrators prefer to use the metal bats.

"You end up with this public interest question ? safety versus cost," Ross told ABCNEWS.com. "On the side of safety you have the wooden bat manufacturers who would love to have laws abolishing metal bats so they can sell more of their product, and on the side of cost you have the aluminum bat manufacturers who don't want to go out of business."

Should Metal Bats Be Banned?

So far only New York City and North Dakota have banned metal bans from youth and school sports, and states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania voted against the ban. New Jersey is researching a possible ban, according to The Associated Press.

But sports experts aren't entirely convinced that banning metal bats is the only way to prevent tragedies like Domalewski's from happening again.

Jeffrey Standen, a professor of sports law at Willamette University in Oregon, told ABCNEWS.com that young players could wear heart guards, face masks or the leagues could make the field larger to give the kids more time to react to fast hit balls.

"[Metal bats] are OK on a properly sized field with kids who are prepared to play the position they're assigned," said Standen, who added that studies of aluminum bats do show them to have a bigger "sweet spot' than wood bats and do tend to give players more and further hits.

But there's no clear evidence that metal bats cause more serious injuries than wooden bats.

When it comes to litigation, Standen said juries usually consider the assumption of risk by one who participates.

"In the world of sports law, there's always been a long-standing doctrine of the assumption of risk," Standen said. "The risks of being hit by a batted ball are pretty obvious."

In the end, though, Standen says that it may be the want for a good, exciting baseball game ? not sympathy for those injured ? that prevails in court.

"Frankly, everyone likes an offensive game," Standen said. "There's no question that you see more base hits and more action on the field [using metal bats].

"Part of it is that we want to ban the bats but not when they're in our kids hands."

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