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A Softball Injury Leads to a Federal Case

A case was recently decided in the federal court as a result of an injury occurring to a thirteen-year-old boy during a softball game at a National Guard outing. It was a “bench trial” meaning that it was decided by a judge and not a jury. The judge issued a detailed written opinion in this case of negligence, Woolf v. United States.

The case was tried in federal court because the defendant was the United States in this claim under what is called the Federal Tort Claims Act. Because the judge meticulously goes through his reasoning on negligence and damages there is much to be learned. This case affords us a great view into a fact finder’s reasoning. Hence, I am doing a series of blogs on this trial.

In this outing of U.S. Army National Guardsmen and their families, a softball game had taken place in the morning and then a pick up softball game took place in the afternoon. In the pick up game, the plaintiff, the thirteen-year-old boy, came on the field. His presence close to the field was known to the director of the event, a supervising officer.

The boy, unfortunately, was standing near the third base line and was walking towards home plate as a play was developing. It was a play in which the batter had hit a drive to the outfield and was coming around the bases when the boy was struck by a thrown ball from the catcher. The ball had been thrown in from the outfield to the catcher who was then trying to get the runner out at third. The boy was hit very hard on the head by the softball as he was heading down the third base line.

The question was: Was the softball game supervised properly by the U.S. military officer who was in charge of the picnic? The judge evaluated several factors.

One thing I want to say is that the judge did find comparative negligence and that was in an amount of 20%. That is, the boy was deemed negligent. The judge stated what the standard is for that: “A child is held to the standard of behavior expected from a child of like age, intelligence, and experience.” Yes, there was some negligence on the part of this boy but the greater negligence, 80% in fact, was on the United States government through its agent. The agent was the gentleman who was in charge of this picnic for the U.S. Army National Guard.

The injuries were quite bad. The young plaintiff suffered a significant head injury which has led to seizures, although they are controlled. He also has cognitive loss. The parents had what is called a loss of parental consortium under Massachusetts General Laws c.231, 85X.

The key factual issue (with its legal implications) was whether this young man should have been on the field during active play? I will get into more details of the liability in a future blog. In yet a third blog, I will discuss the damages and how the judge came to a monetary valuation of those damages. As you may realize, when our cases go to a verdict in Massachusetts, we only see whether a jury has found negligence and, if so, the amount of money to be awarded. Unlike this bench trial, we don’t see the reasoning for the award.

Let us learn what the judge’s reasoning was so that we can draw some general conclusions from this case – basically, a simple, if anything is ever simple- negligence case. Please consider reading and listening to future blogs as I hope they will be enlightening about what matters in the personal injury field.

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