The following article was written by Benjamin Haynes, Esq.
On November 15, 2005, the Los Angeles Lakers were visiting the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies beat the Lakers by 12 points, but that wasn’t the biggest story coming from FedEx Forum that evening. During the game, a loose ball was heading to go out of bounds and Kobe Bryant chased after the ball to try and keep it in play. While going after the ball, Kobe collided with a Grizzlies fan that was sitting courtside (Bill Geeslin). Geeslin received a severely bruised lung cavity after the incident. He decided to file a lawsuit against Kobe Bryant for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and asked for damages in excess of $75,000.
During Geeslin’s deposition, he stated that Kobe “intentionally” forearmed him in the chest. Further, Geeslin stated that Kobe did not apologize and glared at Geeslin as he walked away. During this game, Kobe had a below average performance individually, scoring just 18 points and totaling only 3 rebounds. Geeslin further stated in his deposition that he believed Kobe was angry because he was losing and not getting calls from the referees.
Just a couple months after Geeslin’s deposition, Geeslin died. There was no allegation from Geeslin’s estate that the cause of death had any relation with Kobe’s alleged forearm blast.
Initially, the District Court of Tennessee dismissed this suit in 2010, with the judge stating, “no reasonable juror could conclude that Kobe intended to harm the Plaintiff when he effectively pushed himself off of Plaintiff’s chest to get up and back in the game.” Further, the court added, “this conduct was not so outrageous that it is not tolerated by a civilized society.”
On appeal, the appellate court agreed that there was no claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but the court took a deeper look at the assault and battery claims. While the appellate court agreed that fans sitting courtside at an NBA game assume the risk of such contact, the appellate court stated that a fan would not assume an intentional forearm shove. Trial was set to take place and Kobe and his attorney agreed to settle the case before it got to trial.
I have always been weary of fans sitting so close to the floor in NBA basketball games. In sports, such as baseball and football, there is generally enough space between the players and the fans so that security would be able to get to a fan before a player was unaware of an attack. Further, generally a player will become aware of a fan running onto a baseball or football field during a game because there is enough space between the stands and the field to allow a player to realize what is happening. Also, there is generally enough space between the players and fans to keep the fans safe from players conduct in those sports.
Most of the time I am not worried about the fans’ safety during NBA games, but I am worried about the players’ safety. The thought of having several fans literally a couple feet away from the floor makes me uneasy. It would not be difficult for a fan to step out on the court and harm a player. In contrast, there have been several times where NBA players throw their entire bodies into the stands in order to chase after a loose ball, which applies much more force than a simple forearm. For instance, back in 2009, Shaquille O’neal dove into the stands after a loose ball.
This poses an extreme risk of injury when such large players are throwing their entire bodies into fans, who may or may not be bracing themselves for the impact. The difference between a fan getting injured by a player, and a player getting injured by a fan, is the intent.
Battery is the tort of intentionally or voluntarily bringing about an unconsented harmful or offensive contact with a person. In the game of basketball, especially at a professional level, the game is extremely fast paced. While it is not impossible for a player to create the intent necessary in order to commit a battery on a fan during play, it is extremely uncommon. When a ball is flying out of bounds, the player will be focused on keeping that ball in play. It is extremely unlikely that a player is going to have enough time and awareness to intentionally batter somebody who is in the stands, while also focusing on keeping the ball in play.
As the court stated in this case, fans assume the risk of such contact sitting so close to the court. Therefore, natural contact between players and fans would preclude a fan from bringing a lawsuit against a player for such contact. The only possible way a fan will win on such a claim is by meeting his/her burden of proving intent to harm on the part of the player.
While this potential lawsuit was settled, it sets some hazardous precedent for future claims. Will players not hustle to balls going out of bounds because of fear of potential financial liability? Not every player is making $25 million a year like Kobe. While I believe this type of lawsuit is a very uncommon occurrence, I do believe that the greater risk that should be brought to the forefront is the player’s safety. As I stated, the fans are sitting too close to the players during the game. All it takes is a fan that has had one too many beers and he or she attacks a player when the player is running too close to him/her on the sideline. There needs to be a change for the fans’ and the players’ safety. While the experience of sitting courtside at an NBA basketball game is one of the greatest experiences for a basketball fan, the NBA should impose a rule to mandate a certain level of distance between the fans and the basketball court.