The Los Angeles Dodgers finally broke “The Curse of ‘88” and won the World Series on October 27, 2020, beating the Tampa Bay Rays four games to two. While the Dodger’s Fall Classic win certainly attracted a large source of attention, a significant portion of news centered not on the game itself but instead on the actions of one player in particular. Justin Turner, the Dodger’s third baseman, played a crucial role in the team’s World Series run and subsequent victory, but was mysteriously pulled from the series-clinching game after the seventh inning. The MLB discovered midgame that a COVID-19 test Turner took earlier that day had come back positive and immediately notified the Dodgers, who promptly pulled their third baseman out of the game. As per player and League agreed-upon protocols, the team then ordered Turner to remain in self-isolation. However, after the Dodgers secured their first World Series win in thirty-two years, Turner disregarded these instructions and joined his team for the on-field celebration. Although Turner initially wore a mask when he returned to Globe Life Field, he was seen with his mask off on multiple occasions, including while sitting in close proximity to his teammates for a celebratory photo and while posing with the Commissioner’s Trophy.
To many, Turner’s twelve-year tenure and commitment to the Dodgers warranted a celebration with the team; after all, as Turner himself stated in his apology, “[w]inning the World Series was my lifelong dream and the culmination of everything I worked for in my career.” Notwithstanding, whether or not one believes a World Series victory justifies Turner’s actions, it is undeniable that his disregard for safety protocols put dozens of individuals at risk of contracting the coronavirus. The MLB Commissioner, the family members of Dodger players, and the ballpark staff were all on the field to celebrate the team’s achievement and were unnecessarily exposed to the virus because of Turner’s return. So, Turner’s actions beg the question: if an individual on the field with Turner during the celebration later contracted the coronavirus, could the third baseman be held liable for a civil tort claim?
Discussions of COVID-19-related personal injury claims have typically been viewed through the framework of negligence suits brought against businesses and employers by plaintiffs who believe they contracted the coronavirus due to the defendant’s failure to take necessary precautions to stop the spread of the virus. Less attention has been paid to instances of individuals with actual knowledge of their positive diagnosis who nevertheless decide to go out in public. However, courts can still apply the same negligence framework to these situations. While the exact elements differ among the states, the elements generally required to establish a prima facie case of negligence are: (1) the existence of a duty that the defendant owes the plaintiff; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s breach of their duty to the plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff’s incurrence of damages. If an individual on the field celebrating with Turner contracted the virus and sought to bring a negligence suit against him, they would have to establish all four elements based on a preponderance of the evidence. How likely would it be for a potential plaintiff to prevail on their claim? Let’s examine the following elements.
Did Turner Have a Duty?
Courts have generally recognized a duty for people diagnosed with a contagious disease to “take the necessary steps to prevent the spread of the disease.” Thus, individuals who know that they have contracted COVID-19 have an obligation to act as a reasonably prudent person under similar circumstances would in order to “avoid or minimize the risk of foreseeable harm.” In Turner’s situation, the foreseeable harm of leaving his self-isolation to join the postgame celebration would be transmitting the virus to individuals on the field with him. At a minimum, the level of care that a reasonably prudent person should have exercised given Turner’s circumstances would have been to adhere to the MLB’s safety protocols and to stay in self-isolation for both the remainder of the game and the team’s subsequent celebration.
Although COVID-19 is a novel virus, courts in several states have previously imposed liability on individuals who negligently spread other contagious diseases. For example, the Supreme Court of California found that individuals with actual or constructive knowledge of their HIV diagnosis indeed have a duty to prevent the spread of the sexually transmitted disease. Under the same rationale, Turner has a duty to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, especially given the virus’s extremely contagious nature as well as the severe risk of illness and potential for death associated with its contraction.
Did Turner Breach His Duty?
In order to minimize the risk of spreading the virus, Turner not only should have followed MLB protocols but also should have adhered to CDC guidelines, which require individuals who test positive for COVID-19 to stay in self-isolation for a minimum of ten days. As stated previously, the coronavirus is a highly infectious disease that can be transmitted with immense ease when an infected individual engages in face-to-face interactions with others. According to the CDC, the virus normally spreads when respiratory droplets from an infected individual are breathed in by those nearby. Since respiratory droplets travel when a person talks, coughs, or sneezes, wearing a face mask and remaining in self-isolation are absolutely critical to restricting the spread of the virus. However, Turner not only ignored his self-isolation instructions and joined his team after their victory but even took off his mask on several occasions. In this way, Turner certainly breached his duty to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus to those on the field celebrating the Dodgers’ World Series win.
Did Turner’s Actions Cause Plaintiff’s Damages?
Undoubtedly, the biggest roadblock to a successful negligence suit for Turner’s actions would come at the causation juncture. A potential plaintiff would need to show that their contraction of the virus was at least proximately caused by Turner’s return to the field for the postgame celebration. Given the highly contagious nature of the virus, tracing causation back to a single exposure point would be considerably difficult. Not only can the virus spread through in-person interactions with any symptomatic or asymptomatic infected individual, contraction can even occur by touching a surface that a COVID-19 positive individual has previously touched, sneezed on, or coughed on. Respiratory droplets containing the virus can survive on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days, so it is entirely conceivable that an individual on the field with Turner, who later tests positive for COVID-19, contracted the virus from a completely unrelated source. However, even though contraction is possible by touching a surface exposed to the virus, ultimately, the spread of COVID-19 occurs more easily and mainly through in-person interactions.
A potential plaintiff would not need to rule out all alternative causes, but the introduction of evidence of other potential causes of contraction – such as the plaintiff taking public transportation, failing to wear a face mask when in public, not maintaining social distancing, or gathering in large groups – would add a plethora of contraction sources. In our case, it would decrease the likelihood that a plaintiff could prove that their contraction of COVID-19 was proximately caused by their single exposure to Justin Turner on Globe Life Field. Further adding to the arduous task of proving causation is the fact that the on-field celebration took place outdoors, which poses significantly less of a risk of contraction than indoor interactions. In fact, in a study of over 7,000 COVID-19 cases, “only two – part of the same transmission event – could be linked to outdoor settings.” Making a showing in court that the plaintiff’s damages were proximately caused by Turner’s actions may be nearly insurmountable when considering that multiple personal injury cases involving cruise passengers who contracted the virus while on a ship have already been dismissed. If plaintiffs who were on an enclosed cruise ship for three weeks were still unable to establish causation, it surely does not bode well for an individual seeking to bring a negligence suit against Turner for a relatively brief outdoor interaction.
Did Plaintiff Suffer Damages?
When it comes to injuries related to a COVID-19 infection, damages can certainly be very severe. Financial loss from expensive medical treatment can quickly balloon, and worse yet is the possibility, although statistically unlikely, of death. Even patients who recover from the virus have experienced depression, long-term fatigue, and difficulty thinking and concentrating. These symptoms can last for months, which can seriously impede one’s ability to work. It should be noted that if a plaintiff were to bring a negligence suit against Turner for coronavirus-related damages, the damages themselves would likely have to be serious to avoid dismissal. A district court judge recently raised concerns that plaintiffs may be bringing COVID-19 related lawsuits to court that don’t belong because they simply involve de minimis injuries. Similar concerns that coronavirus lawsuits will flood the judicial system will likely incentivize judges to keep all but the most serious of cases with significant damages out of court.
Based on an examination of the four negligence elements and how they apply to a possible COVID-19 related lawsuit, Justin Turner’s actions after the Dodger’s World Series win, although irresponsible, likely would not lead to civil tort liability. Even if an individual celebrating the victory with Turner later contracted the virus and suffered severe damages, establishing all four elements of a prima facie case of negligence would be challenging. A potential plaintiff could show three of the four required elements (duty, breach, and damages) with relative ease, but proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Turner’s actions proximately caused their damages would ultimately be fatal to the claim. While tort liability may not reach Turner’s actions, this fact alone should not give individuals the green light to disregard safety protocols. It is incredibly important for people to adhere to the COVID-19 standards set in place, including wearing a face mask when in public and properly self-isolating after testing positive. It is only with a collective adherence to the rules that society can successfully limit the spread of this cataclysmic disease.
About the Author: Austin Peng is a J.D. candidate in the Class of 2022 at Cornell Law School. As a University of Miami graduate with a degree in Economics, Austin is interested in issues involving financial regulation and tax law. He is an Online Editor for Cornell Law School’s Journal of Law and Public Policy, The Issue Spotter, and serves as the Co-President of the California Law Students Association and the Secretary of the Business Law Society.
Suggested Citation: Austin Peng, A Dodger’s Dilemma: The Possibility of Civil Liability for Justin Turner’s World Series Celebration, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y: The Issue Spotter, (Feb. 26, 2021), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/a-dodgers-dilemma-the-possibility-of-civil-liability-for-justin-turners-world-series-celebration/.