Appeals Court Affirms $775K Judgment for Injured MLB Umpire

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The Wilson Sporting Goods Co., struck out in its appeal of a $775,000 judgment awarded to a Major League Baseball umpire who sued after being injured by a foul ball. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment in an opinion (PDF) released this morning.

Edwin Hickox sued Wilson in District of Columbia Superior Court after a foul ball knocked off his Wilson-made face mask during a Washington Nationals game in 2005. A jury sided with Hickox in March 2011 and ordered Wilson to pay $775,000 to Hickox and $25,000 to his wife. Wilson appealed, challenging the admission of an expert who testified for Hickox at trial, among other things.

A three-judge appellate panel upheld the judgment today. Wilson had pointed to flaws in the expert’s testimony äóñ such as the fact that he didn’t do his own testing of the face masks at issue äóñ but the appeals court found that any deficiencies went to the weight the jury gave that testimony, as opposed to whether it should be admissible.

In describing the purported problem with Wilson’s face mask, Wilson argued that the expert failed to fully explain his reasoning. But Judge Roy McLeese III, writing for the court, found that any gaps in the testimony could be addressed in cross-examination and closing arguments.

Hickox’s lawyer, Patrick Regan of Washington’s Regan Zambri Long & Bertram, said the ruling was “a complete victory – this was a mask that never should have been put on the market.”

“At trial, their witness conceded that they should have tested. They conceded that if they had tested, they would have discovered the defect and they wouldn’t have put it on the market,” Regan said, adding that Hickox served as a “human guinea pig” for Wilson.

A Wilson representative and the company’s lawyer, Andrew Butz of Bonner Kiernan Trebach & Crociata, also could not immediately be reached.

Hickox suffered a concussion and broken bones in his face. According to court filings, the Wilson face mask flipped off when the ball struck. Hickox sued to hold Wilson responsible, arguing that the mask failed to protect his face as advertised and accusing Wilson of failing to rigorously test the mask.

Wilson had also argued on appeal that the jury should have been given an “assumption-of-risk” instruction äóñ essentially that Hickox knew he was putting himself at risk of being hit by a ball by being an umpire. The court ruled that knowing the “general risks” of umpiring wasn’t the same as knowing about defects in the face mask’s design.

Finally, Wilson argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the judgment on the products-liability claims. The court found that there was evidence that the mask Hickox wore was less safe than other comparable masks available, such as hockey-style face masks. Hickox could reasonably expect that the mask would protect his face because there was evidence that a Wilson representative told him the mask represented top safety technology, McLeese wrote.

Associate Judges John Fisher and Kathryn Oberly also heard the case.

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