Former Giants outfielder faces uphill battle in bullpen mound injury lawsuit

·6-min read

As he sprinted to chase down a Bryce Harper pop-up in foul territory two and a half years ago, Mac Williamson lost track of where he was on the field.

The San Francisco Giants outfielder tripped over the bullpen mound beyond the left-field foul line at Oracle Park and careened head first into the padded wall separating the field from the seats.

The severe concussion that Williamson suffered in the collision sidelined him for the next month and proved to be the turning point of his career. When he returned, the former third-round draft pick struggled at the plate and never reproduced the home run pop he had flashed prior to the injury.

Now more than a year removed from his last major-league at-bat, Williamson on Tuesday filed suit against the owners of Oracle Park, claiming the bullpen mounds should not have been in the field of play. Williamson blames his concussion for cutting short his career, saying that to this day he continues to suffer nausea, dizziness, blurred vision and other symptoms.

"My injuries could have been avoided but for the park's failure to relocate the bullpens to where they belonged in the first place," Williamson said in a recorded statement. "Trying to fight through the concussion over the last 2.5 years has been extremely difficult, both personally and professionally.

"I'm left wondering every day if tomorrow will be better, if tomorrow I'll get my life back. Unfortunately, that day has yet to come and my life in baseball has effectively come to an end."

(NBC Sports Bay Area)
(NBC Sports Bay Area)

While athletes who suffer serious in-game injuries almost never file lawsuits, Williamson is not the first to try. The few that have succeeded were able to prove their injuries occurred outside the scope of the risk inherent in the game.

A St. Louis jury in 2018 awarded Reggie Bush $12.5 million in damages for an injury the running back sustained at the Los Angeles Rams’ former stadium. Unable to stop after being pushed out of bounds on a 2015 punt return, Bush slipped on an exposed strip of concrete behind the visiting team’s bench and suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Rudy Tomjanovich and the Los Angeles Lakers also famously agreed on a $2 million settlement after the former Houston Rockets forward sued the team for negligent supervision of one of its players. After Kermit Washington punched Tomjanovich in the face during a 1977 game, a court ruled that Tomjanovich’s facial injuries occurred in a manner outside the expected risks inherent to basketball.

Stadium owners across the country surely will be monitoring Williamson’s lawsuit because of the precedent he could set, but attorneys who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Tuesday said the former San Francisco Giants outfielder faces an uphill battle. In fact, some attorneys were skeptical Williamson’s lawsuit will even get to court at all because it may be barred by worker’s compensation laws or preempted by collective bargaining agreement provisions.

“Injured professional athletes generally can only seek relief through workers’ compensation,” New York-based attorney and sports legal expert Dan Lust told Yahoo Sports. “Athletes can get around this so-called ‘exclusive remedy’ and get into court if they can show that a team acted in a particularly egregious or fraudulent manner. That doesn’t appear to be the case here since the mechanism of injury was simply a bullpen mound in foul ground.”

Williamson’s attempt to surmount that hurdle appears to be suing the stadium owners instead of the team, a technicality since the Giants own their own ballpark. While Williamson’s suit names China Basin Ballpark Company LLC as the defendant, that firm is controlled by the Giants’ ownership group.

“It’s going to come down to the fact that the stadium is owned by a different entity than the team and whether a judge views that as not being an employer,” said a prominent sports attorney who spoke candidly in exchange for anonymity.

Even if Williamson’s lawsuit does make it to court, attorneys say that proving negligence will be difficult. His attorneys will have to demonstrate that tripping over a bullpen mound in foul territory isn’t the sort of injury that he should reasonably expect to suffer while playing baseball.

Most major-league parks once had bullpens in the field of play, but that had already begun to change by the time the Giants opened Oracle Park in 2000. In 1989, there were 15 MLB parks with on-field bullpens. Eleven years later, there were only eight.

The Giants bucked that trend to maximize what fans were able to see. They wanted Oracle Park to have the feel of a classic intimate, urban ballpark like Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

Major League Baseball still does not prohibit on-field bullpens, but the practice has gotten even less common over the past 20 years. Only the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s still have theirs in foul territory since the Giants moved theirs behind the center-field fence before the 2020 season.

While Williamson didn’t play in many ballparks with on-field bullpens, he won’t be able to argue he was unaware of the risk at Oracle Park prior to his injury. He had played dozens of games there since the Giants first promoted him from the minor leagues in 2015.

Attorneys described Williamson’s lawsuit as more of a long shot than a similar one that is currently in litigation. New York Yankees rookie Dustin Fowler sued the Chicago White Sox after he injured his knee in 2017 running into a concealed electrical box in a corner of the outfield while pursuing a fly ball.

The big difference in the two lawsuits is the hazards that caused the injuries.

“The pitching mound was open and obvious,” UCLA law professor and sports law expert Steven Bank said. “Therefore Williamson could have been expected to take care to avoid it the same way he needs to take care to avoid the existence of a wall or fence when he is pursuing a fly ball. That distinguishes it from the hidden hazard [in Fowler’s lawsuit].”

While Bush’s jury verdict and Fowler’s legal progress give Williamson more reason to be optimistic about his chances than he could have been a few years ago, attorneys are quick to caution that these cases are still rarely successful.

Injuries are part of every sport. Athletes assume that risk whenever they step between the lines. That’s why athletes injured during games so very rarely file lawsuits, let alone win them.

“The ‘assumption of the risk’ doctrine would be the Giants best defense in court,” Lust said. “Williamson could still try to present evidence of the history of these types of injuries to show an underlying negligent design, but it’s very much still an uphill battle.”

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