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Ravens not liable for punt that injured fan, appeals court says

Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch (4) plays against the Pittsburgh Steelers during an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Justin Berl)

Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch, the team, and the National Football League are not liable after an errant Koch punt allegedly knocked a fan at M&T Bank Stadium temporarily unconscious, an appeals court has ruled. (AP Photo/Justin Berl)

Neither the Baltimore Ravens nor their star punter can be held liable for a pregame punt that sailed into the stands and allegedly rendered a fan temporarily unconscious at M&T Bank Stadium seven years ago, Maryland’s second-highest court has ruled.

Paulina Callinan, a self-described “football fanatic,” knew of and assumed the risk of injury from a punted, passed or kicked ball going into the spectator section, where she and her husband had near-field-level seats for the Ravens game against the San Diego Chargers on Nov. 1, 2015, the Court of Special Appeals said in its unreported 3-0 decision last month.

The court also cited the back of Callinan’s admission ticket, which stated that the “ticket holder assumes all risks incident to the game or related events, including the risk of lost, stolen or damaged property or personal injury of any kind.”

“It is undisputed that no one forced Callinan to go to the game,” Judge J. Frederick Sharer wrote for the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed a trial judge’s dismissal of the case.

“Callinan, who had full knowledge that balls sometimes were thrown or kicked into the stands, voluntarily attended the football game with seats six rows away from the field,” added Sharer, a retired judge sitting by special assignment. “The (Baltimore City) Circuit Court thus did not err when it ruled that Callinan assumed the risk of being struck by an errantly kicked football while in the stands.”

The appellate court also upheld the dismissal of Callinan’s claim that longtime punter Sam Koch committed civil battery by “intentionally, recklessly and without due regard to patrons … kicked a football into the grandstands” and injured her.

Battery requires proof of intent to harm, the court said. Callinan’s allegation that Koch’s punt “stray(ed) outside the proper path or bounds” does not meet the standard of intent, the court added.

“The complaint says that Koch intentionally kicked the football and the football struck Callinan,” Sharer wrote. “But the complaint does not allege that Koch intended the football to cause a harmful or offensive contact with anyone. Nor does the complaint plead facts showing that Koch punted the football with a ‘substantial certainty’ that he would cause an offensive contact with anyone.”

Callinan’s attorney, Donald C. Discepolo, did not immediately return telephone and email messages Wednesday seeking comment on the decision and any plans to seek review by the Court of Appeals. Discepolo is with the Discepolo Law Firm in Fulton.

The Ravens’ attorney, Andrew S. Bassan, declined to comment on the appellate court’s decision. Bassan is with Kiernan Trebach LLP in Washington.

The Ravens’ game against the then-San Diego Chargers was the first National Football League game Callinan attended in person. The ticket was a gift from her husband, according to court documents.

Callinan was recording pregame warmups on her cellphone when Koch sent a practice punt into the stands. The ball struck Callinan’s face, rendering her temporarily unconscious, according to her complaint.

Callinan sued the Ravens, Koch and the NFL, alleging negligence, as well as claiming civil battery by the punter. Callinan’s claim against the NFL was also dismissed.

During pretrial depositions, Callinan said she had become such a fan of professional football in 2011 that when she could not view the games live on television she would record them to watch later. She also acknowledged she had seen televised games in which kicked and thrown balls had gone into the stands.

Both the circuit court and Court of Special Appeals cited her fandom and acknowledgment in ruling she was well aware of and assumed the risk of being struck by a punted ball.

In its decision, the appellate court noted that a fan’s assumption of risk is not unique to football.

The court cited a 2005 Pennsylvania court decision finding the Philadelphia Phillies not liable to a fan who was struck and injured by a baseball that the team’s centerfielder, Marlon Byrd, had tossed into the stands after catching the final out in the top of the seventh inning.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Kings were found not liable by a California court in 2002 to a fan who was struck by a high-flying puck during pregame warmups, the Court of Special Appeals said.

“Indeed, Callinan’s candid deposition testimony makes clear that she was a football fan who knew that footballs entered the stands,” Sharer wrote.

Sharer was joined in the opinion by Judges Stuart R. Berger and Melanie Shaw Geter.

As for the game, the Ravens defeated the Chargers – who have since moved to Los Angeles – by a score of 29-26 on a last-second field goal by Justin Tucker. Koch was the holder for the kick.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Paulina Callinan v. National Football League et al., No. 994, September Term 2020.