CROWD MANAGEMENT LESSONS FROM STOW V. LA DODGERS
Legal Disaster Can Be Avoided, Or Mitigated
The Stow v. Los Angeles Dodgers case is one of the most visible crowd management cases in U.S. history. It involved a San Francisco Giants’ fan, Brian Stow, who attended a LA Dodgers’ home opener baseball game in March 2011. On trying to leave the stadium after the game, Stow was attacked in the parking lot by another fan. The sucker-punch he received caused significant and serious life-changing injuries.
While it involved a single fan incident, the resulting injuries and media attention made it one of the most followed personal injury cases in years. The verdict, in July 2014, held the Dodgers partly responsible for Stow’s injury, and the final verdict would require 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.
The glitz of the media coverage showed the interest of the media and the public in sensationalizing an assault that could have happened at many different venues. However, some serious litigation-related lessons can learned from this and similar crowd management cases I have worked on over the past 25 years.
The problem with many of these cases is poor recordkeeping that can make it very difficult for the truth to come out. The Dodgers could have claimed, for example, that new employees received 16 hours of training before working. However, in this case, numerous witnesses could not verify that amount. Thus, any documentation from employee time cards (which were used during some testimony) to having a detailed syllabus, educational material, quiz/examination results, and sign-in sheets could have added factual value if they were available.
This is one of the key areas both plaintiff and defense counsels (I handle approximately an equal number of plaintiff and defense cases) should explore during the discovery process. The documentation or the lack thereof can help prove a case.
The question then becomes what needs to be examined to paint a picture of 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 that there are few “industry standards” in our field. There are few government regulations as to how facilities should be run or operated. Almost every facility, venue, event, concert, etc. is different, based on a host of variables. The industry standards stem from what other similar facilities might do.
This could be baseball stadiums, which 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. Similarly, standards or best practices can come from industry associations such as the International Association of Venue Managers. While they might not be attempting to set standards, their members often discuss and create best practices for running facilities that should be examined.
One of these is following the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code requirement of one trained crowd manager for every 250 fans. It serves as a generally accepted starting point for trying to determine possible staffing levels.
The items I look for when handling these cases include:
• Were regular risk management audits taken? I am talking about not perfunctory checklists, but regularly scheduled inspections based on collected data (whether from fan complaints, incident reports, police reports, or other sources) or regularly scheduled inspections by fresh eyes. A number of facilities utilize “secret shoppers” to make sure policies and procedures are being followed — such as only selling two beers per transaction if that is the service policy.
• What specific steps were taken in response to such audits — whether fixing a piece of equipment, modifying a policy, redeploying personnel, etc.? It is important to highlight that issues were identified and resolved or that issues could reasonably have been identified but no effort was made to reduce the potential risk.
• What is covered in the employee training programs? Attorneys should try to uncover copies of all PowerPoints, exercises, exams, sign-off forms, etc. to show when training was undertaken, who was trained, and if the employees were really prepared to implement a safety or security plan. Are all employees working in a security capacity properly credentialed?
• 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?
• How do employees effectively communicate with one another (whether by cellphone or walkie-talkie), and how are such messages conveyed through the command center found at most facilities?
• How are intoxicated fans dealt with outside facilities, in parking areas, before gaining admission to a facility, and while in a facility? What policies are in place to deal with both behaving and misbehaving patrons?
• Is there a fan help line; and what other strategies are being utilized to make sure patrons are following the “code of conduct” posted at most venues?
• With the advent of incident management systems (IMS), a lot more data can be used to analyze incidents in and around a facility. One key to such a system is how well data are entered 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:
• What data are being sought? Some information might be confusing. The data must be as clear as possible to effectively mine them. For example, the information might indicate not just what time the incident occurred, but also when exactly during the game it occurred (e.g., top of third inning).
• What terms will be used consistently in reports? If a fight is called a battery, then every fight should be classified the same. This also can impact determining, say, where additional resources are needed to prevent potential fights.
• What is done with the IMS information? Is it shared with the widest breadth of stakeholders; how and how often is it shared? Similar to how open-book management is transforming many businesses, when a facility shares crucial information across all employees and stakeholders (such as the police), it is easier for employees to internalize the value of what they are doing and why they are doing it.
There is no way to guarantee a 100% safe event. But that doesn’t mean a facility should not take every reasonable step to make sure it is as safe as possible.
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 to terminating them if they are not doing their job well. Every step in the process is important, and failing in one area can lead to significant problems.
As I testified at the Stow trial (in reference to quotes from one of my textbooks), there is no way to guarantee a 100% safe event. But that doesn’t mean a facility should not take every reasonable step to make sure it is as safe as possible. A facility owner/occupier is ultimately responsible for the property — that is a non-delegable duty.
Even with significant law enforcement presence, the facility manager needs to make sure it is reasonably safe. Criminal conduct can occur at almost any location. Liability is normally only imputed to a facility if it knew about a hazardous environment or could reasonably identify such an environment and does 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 ensure that safety personnel are properly trained/supervised and in the right spots and doing their job, then it can possibly be held responsible for a climate where a crime might not have happened if the facility and its employees knew and addressed these risks/issues.
I cannot tell you the joy/shock I have had in cases where an incident might be in the news, but the facility has no record of what happened. It’s something management needs to know about to act properly — and why it’s so important for their attorneys to dig and ask the right questions.
Gil Fried is Chair of and a Professor in the Sport Management Department, College of Business, at the University of New Haven, CT. His consulting web page is www.gilfried.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.