Little Leaguer with Brain Injury Receives Large Settlement

The legal case stemming from the sad story of little leaguer Stephen Domalewski came to a close recently when the family settled their lawsuit against the bat manufacturer, the little league, and a sporting goods chain for $14.5 million.  In case you are unfamiliar with the case, in 2006 Stephen, then 12 years old, was pitching in a little league baseball game when the batter hit a hard line drive back to the mound.  The ball slammed into Stephen’s chest just above his heart and knocked him over on the ground.  Unfortunately for Stephen, the ball hit him in the precise millisecond between heartbeats and sent him into cardiac arrest.  Stephen collapsed and stopped breathing.  Before he could be revived his brain had been without oxygen for 15 – 20 minutes, and he suffered permanent brain damage.

After his injury, the Domalewski family filed a personal injury lawsuit against the little league, the sporting goods store, and the manufacturer of the bat.  Because the case was settled and the details are not revealed, we do not, and will not, know how much each defendant contributed to the settlement.  It is safe to assume the majority of the payment came from the manufacturer of the bat – Hillerich and Bradsby (who make Louisville Sluggers). 

Although the details of the legal case were not revealed because it was settled prior to going to court, the argument likely focuses on whether or not the bat – a standard metal bat made for little league play – was unsafe.  Metal bats are much lighter than wooden bats, and the lighter the bat the easier it is for a little leaguer to hit a ball hard.  Since the early 1990’s, little league has had an agreement with bat manufacturers to limit performance of metal bats so that balls hit off them would be less likely to cause injury to pitchers.  The bat used to hit the ball that injured Stephen was approved as safe by the league he played in and made to little league specifications by the manufacturer.  However, both still faced the potential for legal liability after Stephen’s injury because anytime a child suffers such a severe and unexpected injury, the safety regulations are called into question.  Stephen’s lawyer alleged the league, the seller, and the manufacturer of the bat failed in their duty to protect children from bats that hit balls at speeds unsafe for the particular age group.

Lawsuits like this, and settlements this large, always seem to raise a great deal of discussion because there is not a clear bad guy, and it is not easy to see how this accident could have been predicted or prevented.  The little league, sporting goods store, and the bat manufacturer were not on the field that day.  They didn’t hit the ball, and they didn’t directly cause the accident that Stephen suffered.  However, opponents of this type of lawsuit against corporate defendants whose product caused an injury should keep in mind a few things:

  1. If the bat was unsafe, and the injury was caused because the bat was unsafe, then the manufacturer and the league that sanctions the bat are legally liable.  As time goes on, standards for bat safety in little league may change, and the league and the manufacturer may have failed in their duty to recognize that a new limit needed to be placed on metal bats.
  2. The defendants in this case agreed to this settlement, and may have had non-legal reasons for doing so.  Perhaps they feared a public backlash against their product had the case gone to trial, or perhaps they felt sincerely sorry for Stephen and agreed to offer a settlement that provided for the rest of his life.  Before criticizing tort law and lawyers, keep in mind the resolution of this case was, at the end, not reached by legal process
  3. Finally, it is easy to criticize the Domalewskis and their attorney because they went after millions of dollars from seemingly innocent corporate defendants.  However, if you were facing a lifetime of medical bills, a lifetime of caring for your adult son, and a lifetime of wondering what he could have become, would you really do anything differently?  No amount of money will bring Stephen back, but a legal award will go a long way towards relieving the stress suffered in the aftermath of the accident. 

The legal case has settled, but lingering questions remain because the award was so high and because the case never went to trial.  We will never know how a jury would have decided this case, and can only speculate about the quality of the legal arguments that the Domalewski family attorney compiled.  High profile personal injury cases always tend to attract negative attention and criticism, but keep in mind that each contain a human component – in this case a tragic story of a lost future.  Regardless of the size of the settlement or the reason behind it, personal injury law can never fully compensate for the tragedies that spawn legal action.

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