Lessons from Stow – A Litigator’s Guide to Venue Safety Cases

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— Updated on June 23, 2020

Lessons from Stow – A Litigator’s Guide to Venue Safety Cases

Event Safety Expert Witness Stow v. Los Angeles Dodgers is one of the most famous crowd management cases in United States history. The case involved a San Francisco Giants’ fan who attended a Los Angeles Dodgers’ home opener game.  Upon trying to leave the stadium after the game, he was attacked by another fan. The sucker-punch he received caused life-changing injuries. While Stow involved a single fan incident, the resulting injuries and media attention made it one of the most followed personal injury cases in years.  The final verdict held the Dodgers partially responsible for Stow’s injury. It required the former Dodgers owner to pay around $14 million to Stow.  This is on top of the possible millions spent on attorney fees and other litigation costs.

While the blitz of media coverage showed the interest in sensationalizing an assault that could have happened at many different venues, there are some lessons that can learned from this and similar crowd management cases I have worked on over the past  25 years.

Documentation and Industry Standards

A major issue in many crowd management cases is poor record keeping by the venue. This can make it very difficult for the truth in any dispute to be determined. In Stow, for example, The Dodgers claimed that new employees each received 16 hours of training before working.  However, numerous witnesses could not verify that amount.  Some testified to having received such training, while others indicated they did not receive any training as they were hired mid-season and only engaged in shadowing.  Others could not remember what was covered during their training, other than general policies and procedures.

Documentation from employee time cards (which were used during some testimony), a detailed training syllabus, educational materials, quiz or examination results, and sign-in sheets could have added factual value to the defendant’s claims, if they were available.  This is one of the key areas both plaintiff and defense counsel  should explore during the discovery process; relevant documentation of any polices, procedures, or training can make a tremendous difference in a case.

Diving deeper into the issue of documentation, what determines whether a facility acted reasonably or unreasonably and whether they met or failed to meet industry best practices?

From the very beginning, it should be noted there are few “industry standards” in our field.  There are very few government regulations as to how facilities should be run or operated.  Almost every facility, venue, game, event, and concert, is different based on team records, weather, action during the game, and a host of other variables.  As a result “industry standards” are not standards as such, but commonly accepted best practices derived from other, similar facilities.  These could be baseball stadiums, who try to meet Major League Baseball recommendations for netting, or National Football League stadiums cutting off beer sales after the end of the third quarter.

Standards or best practices can also come from industry associations, such as the Stadium Managers Association or the International Association of Venue Managers.  While these organizations might not be attempting to set standards, their members often discuss and create “best practices” for running facilities.  One of these “best practices” is following the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code requirement of one trained crowd manager for every 250 fans.  While I do not agree with this as a hard and fast number, it serves as a generally accepted starting point for determining whether staffing levels were appropriate should an incident occur.

Asking the Right Questions

When handling crowd management cases, there are a few basic questions that must be asked and answered:

  1. Were regular risk management audits taken? I am not talking about perfunctory checklists, but regularly scheduled inspections that collect and are directed by hard data, whether from fan complaints, incident reports, police reports, or other sources. A number of facilities utilize “secret shoppers” to make sure policies and procedures are being followed.
  2. What specific steps were taken in response to risk audits? It is important to highlight that issues were identified and resolved by the Defendant facility. Or if issues could reasonably have been identified but no effort was made to reduce the potential risk.
  3. What is covered in employee training programs? Attorneys should try to uncover copies of PowerPoints, exercises, exams, sign-off forms, and other training documentation to show when training was undertaken, who was trained, and if the employees were really prepared to implement a safety or security plan. Oftentimes, training is conducted right before the season begins. So employees hired as replacements during the middle of the season may not have received the same training as their colleagues.  You should also discover if employees need any state certifications – such as a guard card – and if all employees working in a security capacity are properly credentialed.
  4. Is the training program customized to the facility, or does it contain a broader program such as TIPS/TEAM alcohol service training?
  5. Can the facility/event produce deployment charts that show who was scheduled to work where, what time they arrived, when they had their pre-event meeting, where they were initially deployed, if they were re-deployed, when were they redeployed, and what strategies were undertaken to provide appropriate coverage in areas vacated by personnel due to redeployment?
  6. How do employees communicate with one another? How are such messages conveyed through the command center found at most facilities?
  7. How are intoxicated fans dealt with outside facilities, in parking areas, before admission to a facility, and while in a facility? What policies are in place to deal with both behaving and misbehaving patrons?
  8. What strategies are being utilized to make sure patrons are following the “code of conduct” posted at most venues.

Working with Data from Incident Management Systems

With the advent of electronic incident management systems (IMS), there is a lot more data that can be used to analyze incidents in and around a facility.  One of the keys to such a system is how well data is entered into the system, and in what form.  Many facilities complete incident cards and then enter that information into a computer system.  Others enter data immediately into online forms.  Key concerns with such systems include:

  1. What data should be sought? Some information might be confusing, and it’s important to be able to determine how data was being used by the facility to document incidents. For example, if fans are being prevented from entering due to being intoxicated, the incident should be reported as occurring outside the stadium, but if ticket information is collected, then it might appear that the incident occurred inside the stadium.
  2. What are the terms that will be consistently used in reports? If a fight is called a “battery,” then every fight should be classified under the same term. If inconsistent terms are used to describe an incident, then it will be harder to truly determine the total number of fights that might have occurred.
  3. What is done with the information? Information that is collected just to be collected has very little value. Is information from the IMS shared with the widest breadth of stakeholders, how often is it shared, and how is the information shared?

The Role and Responsibilities of Management

Management fundamentals need to be consistent and appropriate.  Management needs to be involved from hiring the right people, training them, properly positioning them, properly reviewing them, and possibly terminating them if they are not doing their job well.  Every step in the process is important, and failing in one of the areas can lead to significant problems.

For example, a deployment sheet is a critical part of the event planning process.  However, what happens if employees do not show-up?  If a facility has indicated in advance that it is important to assign someone to a given area, then significant questions can be raised if that area is not covered (i.e. why create a deployment sheet to cover certain areas if there is no coverage of those areas on a consistent basis).

Could the team have had extra employees to fill in to make sure an area is covered?  If employees are supposed to be roaming, can the facility prove they actually visited areas that otherwise would not be covered?  Does a manager or supervise regularly visit deployed personnel to make sure they are in the right place at the right time?  If employees will need to be redeployed, are they given enough time and assistance to make sure areas that are supposed to be covered are in fact covered at the right time? Are employees regularly evaluated to make sure they are doing their job? If employees have not been evaluated in years, can the facility prove they are capable employees who do the job well and follow policies and procedures?

There is no way to guarantee a 100% safe event.  But that doesn’t mean that a facility should not take every reasonable step to make sure their event is as safe as possible.  A facility owner/occupier is ultimately responsible for their property, which is a non-delegable duty.  Even with significant law enforcement presence, the facility manager needs to make sure the facility is reasonable safe.  Criminal conduct can occur at almost any location.

Liability is normally only imputed to a facility if they knew about a hazardous environment or could reasonably identify such an environment and do not implement steps to minimize the potential criminal conduct.  Thus, if a facility does not know where incidents are happening, does not know where employees are located, does not insure safety personnel are properly trained/supervised and in the right spots and doing their job, then they can possible held responsible for a climate where a crime might not have happened if the facility and its employees knew and addressed these risks.

Expert Witness Bio E-028947

Expert E-028947This extremely qualified expert has years of experience in sports facility safety and management. He received both his MA degree in physical education and sport management and his JD degree from Ohio State University. He is a member of various professional associations, including the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation, the National Recreation and Park Association and the Society for the Study of Legal Aspects of Sports and Physical Activity. He has coached 5 university sports teams and lectures both nationally and internationally. He has published 20+ peer-reviewed journal articles and serves in the editorial boards of both the Journal in Sport Safety and Security and the Case Studies in Sport Management journal. He has received multiple honors for his outstanding work, including the National Association of Sports and Physical Education’s “Sport Management Outstanding Achievement Award” and the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation’s “National Recognition Award for Service”. He is the former chair of health care administration at the University of New Haven and a former adjunct professor of sport business leadership at Columbia University. He is also the former director of risk management at OR&L Facility Management and the former special assistant to the director at Houston Park and Recreation Department. Currently, he is a managing partner at a major law firm that focuses on sports facility safety issues. He is also a current professor of business at a major university, where he also chairs the sport management department and directs the online MSSM program.

Location: CT
BS, Business Administration & Communications, California State University Sacramento
MA, Physical Education & Sport Management, Ohio State University
JD, Ohio State University
Member, Commission on Sport Management Accreditation
Member, National Recreation and Park Association
Member, Society for the Study of Legal Aspects of Sports & Physical Activity
Coaching Experience, 5 University Sports Teams
Published, 20+ Peer-reviewed Journal Articles
Member, Editorial Board, Journal in Sport Safety & Security
Member, Editorial Board, Case Studies in Sport Management
Lecturer & Presenter, Numerous National & International Locations
Honor, Sport Management Outstanding Achievement Award, National Association of Sports & Physical Education
Honor, National Recognition Award for Service, Safety & Risk Management Council, American Association for Physical Activity & Recreation
Former, Chair, Health Care Administration, University of New Haven
Former, Adjunct Professor, Sport Business Leadership, Columbia University
Former, Director, Risk Management, OR&L Facility Management
Former, Special Assistant to the Director, Houston Park & Recreation Department
Current, Professor, Business, Major University
Current, Chair, Sport Management, Major University
Current, Academic Director, Online MSSM Program, Major University

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