Seven NASCAR fans were injured on Sunday while watching a race at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway, when a last-lap crash sent Carl Edwards' car airborne and into a "catch fence" in front of the stands. Although the car landed back on the track, some debris from the crash made it through the fence and into the crowd, causing injuries to seven spectators.
The incident at Talladega raises questions about spectator safety at sporting events, and legal liability for fan injuries.
Balancing Sport vs. Safety. Spectator safety at sporting events comes down to a balance between risks that are inherent in the sport and reasonable steps the event holder, stadium owner, and/or team can take to protect spectators from harm. There is no way to make a sporting event completely safe for fans.
For example, baseballs fly off of bats and land in the stands, whether as home runs or foul balls. It's part of the game, and it happens thousands of times during a Major League Baseball season. A safety risk which is that inherent in a sport raises the legal bar at which teams and stadium owners will be held liable for fan injuries.
Assumption of the Risk. When it comes to legal liability for injuries to spectators, courts have been reluctant to hold stadium owners and sports teams responsible for injuries that were a reasonably foreseeable result of the sport itself. This includes foul balls (even bats) flying into the crowd at a baseball game, and hockey pucks that sail over the rink's safety glass and into the stands. And it likely would extend to any injuries suffered by spectators at Talladega on Sunday.
In fact, the track at Talladega is notorious for being one of the more dangerous of the 22 tracks in the NASCAR series, according to the Associated Press: "Horsepower-sapping restrictor plates are used at Daytona and Talladega -- NASCAR's two fastest -- to combat the high speeds. . . As a result, the cars all run the same speed, and the field is typically bunched tightly together. One wrong move by a driver can cause a massive accident."
And all indications are that the "catch fence" at Talladega did exactly what it was supposed to do, as Fox Sports reports, meaning that the fence kept the car from entering the stands. Couple that with the "assumption of the risk" that is a part of all fans' purchase of a ticket and entry into a sporting event, and there likely isn't much of a case for holding Talladega Superspeedway legally responsible for injuries suffered on Sunday (this isn't to say that lawsuits won't be filed and claims settled informally).
On the other hand, if a sports facility adopts reasonable safety measures like installation of a catch fence or other barrier, and then people in the crowd are injured when the barrier fails to perform as expected (i.e. collapses), there's likely a pretty good personal injury case against the manufacturers of the safety barriers, the stadium owners, and/or the sports team itself.
The bottom line in any legal action involving a spectator injury will likely come down to whether all reasonable steps were taken (and taken correctly) to protect fans from harm that -- because of the nature of the sport the fan paid to see in person -- may have been unavoidable.