Houston Astros Sign-Stealing Scandal: A Review of Legal Actions Brought by Ticket Holders
The Houston Astros became the poster child of cheating in professional baseball this past year, due to their sign-stealing scheme that spanned the entire 2017 Major League Baseball (MLB) season and the earlier part of the 2018 season. To make matters worse, the Astros won the 2017 World Series, leaving many fans and players to speculate whether or not they would have won the title absent cheating. While sign-stealing is not illegal, and, in fact, is commonplace around the league, MLB prohibits the use of electronic equipment to steal signs or convey information designed to give a team an advantage.
In the wake of the Astros scandal, which was confirmed in a report issued by MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred, season ticket holders and a former MLB player filed lawsuits against the team. This article will focus on the pending lawsuit by the season ticket holders.
Tickets To Sporting Events Are Licenses And Afford Limited Rights
After the Astros sign-stealing was confirmed by MLB, season ticket holder Adam Wallach filed a class-action lawsuit in Harris County District Court on behalf of all full or partial season ticket holders during the 2017 – 2020 seasons. Some of the claims brought forth in the lawsuit were negligence, negligence per se, and breach of implied contract among others. But what damage can a season ticket holder sue for? Do they even have a property interest that can be harmed? After all, damages are necessary for any claim sounding in negligence or breach of contract. Well, the answer is “yes”—ticket holders have a property interest in their ticket, albeit a very limited interest.
A ticket to a sporting event is considered a “license,” which affords the licensee (i.e., the ticket holder) the limited right to use another’s property for a specific purpose. Most people, including lawyers, do not necessarily think this way every time they go to a game, but that is exactly what the ticket provides them—the right to walk into the stadium/arena for the purpose of sitting in a specified seat to watch the game or event. Thus, the ticket affords its holder these very limited rights. The current Houston Astros season ticket terms and conditions state that “[e]ach Ticket to a Houston Astros baseball game is a limited, revocable license granted by the Houston Astros to attend the baseball game at Minute Maid Park (Ballpark) identified on the applicable Ticket.”
In a Sports Illustrated article discussing potential legal actions based on the Astros scandal, attorney Michael McCann reiterates that fans who attend MLB games “are owed very limited protections from their tickets. They are entitled to watch a game between two specific teams from a particular seat in the ballpark . . . [and] are also entitled to a safe environment from which to watch a game.”
Two Reasons Why The Negligence Claims Will Likely Be Dismissed
While damages are a necessary element of a negligence claim, the Astros must be shown to have owed a duty to the ticket holder before the claim can go any further. As a ticket holder has extremely limited rights under the license granted to them, it will be hard, if not nearly impossible, to prove the Astros owed a duty to “use reasonable care in managing and operating” the team and to refrain from cheating, as the complaint alleges. Going back to the terms and conditions of the season ticket holder agreement linked to above, nowhere in the agreement does it say the Astros will provide “reasonable care in managing and operating” the team or that the Astros will provide a fair game. Though it is practical to expect and hope that these two actions are provided by any team, it is not necessarily a duty owed by a team to a ticket holder unless otherwise stated. Although, some may argue that this duty is implied; but the court likely will not find this persuasive.
Moreover, for the negligence per se claim to move forward, Wallach would need to show negligence as a matter of law—that the Astros violated a civil statute that automatically imposes negligence upon those who violate it. While the Astros violated MLB rules, there is no evidence that owner Jim Crane fielded the team fans paid to see, knowing they were cheating (which one could argue would be fraud). Unless Wallach can somehow show a Texas statute that imposes liability for negligence upon those who violate rules of a professional sport, a negligence per se claim will likely be dismissed.
The second reason Wallach’s negligence claim against the Astros will likely be dismissed is because it runs into statute of limitation concerns. While North Carolina has a three-year statute of limitations for negligence claims, Texas only affords a two-year statute of limitations. The negligence claim was filed on February 14, 2020, and because the majority of the cheating scandal arose during the 2017 season, any claims arising from that season would be barred by the two-year statute of limitations. Thus, only those claims arising from the 2018 season and onward would have any chance of getting past a motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations.
However, Texas has a four-year statute of limitations for breach of contract claims, which would allow such a claim to move forward without concern for the statute of limitations. But again, Wallach would have to show that the Astros owed him more than a duty to provide a seat and a safe environment from which to watch a game, the two duties the Astros were required to provide and did provide.
New England Patriots Spygate Scandal: Similar Lawsuit Dismissed In That Case
The infamous 2007 Spygate scandal arising from the New England Patriots’ actions of videotaping the New York Jets’ coaches produced a similar lawsuit filed by Jets season ticket holder Carl Mayer. There, the New England Patriots were determined to have filmed the New York Jets’ sideline to pick up on signals between coaches and players, conduct that was a violation of National Football League (NFL) rules. Mayer brought a lawsuit against Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots, and the NFL, alleging nine causes of action. Included in the nine, was a breach of contract action against Belichick and the Patriots.
The suit was brought in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, where all nine actions were dismissed. Mayer then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal in their opinion, stating that “[a]t best, [Mayer] possessed nothing more than a contractual right to a seat from which to watch an NFL game between the Jets and the Patriots, and this right was clearly honored.” This opinion reiterates that professional teams owe their ticket holders extremely limited duties.
While these lawsuits are rare, the Harris County District Court can compare Wallach’s claims to past case law arising from the Spygate scandal, which concerns similar facts and issues. All the license granted Wallach was the seat he paid for and a safe environment to watch a game, both of which the Astros provided. So while Wallach may not run into a statute of limitations problem concerning his breach of contract claim, he likely will be unable to show that the Astros breached a duty owed to him under the license or that the Astros were negligent. As these scandals continue to disrupt sporting leagues, fans may try to become more creative in their attempts at legal redress. This creativity is a battle the courts will face for years to come.