Illinois Appellate Court Rules MLB Cannot Enforce Arbitration Agreement against Fan Struck by Foul Ball at Wrigley Field

Major League Baseball’s efforts to end a lawsuit filed by a woman struck by a foul ball at Wrigley Field hit a snag when an Illinois appellate court ruled recently that the injured fan can move ahead with her lawsuit. In its ruling affirming the decision of the trial court, the First District appellate court held that the plaintiff was not required to arbitrate her case with the MLB per the terms of the arbitration agreement printed on the back of her ticket.

The case stems from events that took place during the Chicago Cubs’ August 27, 2018 home game, where the plaintiff, Laiah Zuniga, was hit in the face by a foul ball while at the game played at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs home ballpark. Zuniga received her ticket on the day of the incident from her father who won it in a raffle at his workplace. The paper ticket would be familiar to anyone who has attended sporting or entertainment events. The front of the ticket included artwork depicting one of the Cubs players; information about the opponent, the date and time of the game, the seat location, and ticket price; a barcode; and small print that stated, “Event date/time subject to change. No refund. No exchange. Subject to terms/conditions set forth on the reverse side.”

A large portion of the back of the ticket was taken up by an advertisement. Next to the advertisement were six paragraphs of fine print. The first paragraph provided that by using the ticket, the individual “agrees to the terms and conditions available at www.cubs.com/ticketback (the ‘Agreement’), also available at the Chicago Cubs administrative office. Key terms of the Agreement are summarized below (the Agreement controls in the event of any conflict).” The third paragraph included a sentence in all capital letters stating that baseballs might be hit into the stands, that spectators should stay alert, and that the Cubs and other entities would not be liable for resulting injuries.

Important to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, the fifth paragraph of text stated, in regular type, “Any dispute/controversy/claim arising out of/relating to this license/these terms shall be resolved by binding arbitration, solely on an individual basis, in Chicago, Illinois.” Zuniga attested in an affidavit that she never read the fine print or visited the URL printed on the back of the ticket where the terms and conditions supposedly accompanying her ticket could be viewed. Had she done so, she would have found a much longer and more detailed arbitration agreement, which the Court reproduced verbatim and which spanned more than 3.5 pages of the Court’s opinion.

During the game, Zuniga was sitting at her seat when she was struck in the face by a foul ball. She sustained serious injuries to her head and face, including facial fractures, which required her to be hospitalized for four days. Last year, Zuniga filed suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against the MLB.

The MLB sought to have the suit dismissed and to compel arbitration relying on the arbitration agreement referred to and summarized on the back of the plaintiff’s ticket. Zuniga opposed the MLB’s motion by raising two arguments. First, she argued that the MLB was not a party to the arbitration agreement because any contract existed between the plaintiff and the Chicago Cubs and not the MLB. Second, she argued that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and should not be enforced. The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s first argument but agreed with the second ruling that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable.

On appeal, the Court agreed with the trial court and found sufficient procedural unconscionability to render the arbitration agreement unenforceable. According to the Court, the arbitration provision that the MLB sought to enforce was “difficult or onerous to find or obtain at the time of using the ticket” and consequently the Court “cannot fairly say that the plaintiff was aware of what she was agreeing to.”

In explaining the basis for its holding, the Court noted that it was unlikely that a ticket holder would see or read the full arbitration provision by accessing a team’s website or visiting its administrative office. It found the likelihood of doing so was diminished further by the minimal effort the ticket made to draw a person’s attention to the need to obtain these terms and conditions in order to understand that he or she was agreeing to binding arbitration. The court cited several other factors that supported the conclusion that the plaintiff could not have appreciated what she was supposedly agreeing to. Among the factors identified by the court were the 4-point font the notice was written in, the commotion outside the baseball stadium at the time the person looks at the ticket, the need to use a device to access the internet and manually type in the website address, the length of the terms and conditions (which the Court noted consisted of 4.5 pages of single-spaced type), and the fact that the only way for a person without an internet-enabled device to obtain the terms and conditions is to visit the team’s “administrative office” but nothing on the ticket informs the holder where the office is located.

The MLB now has to decide whether to appeal the decision or proceed with the lawsuit in court.

The Court’s full opinion can be found here.

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