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Does Mac Williamson’s suit have a chance? ‘It’s like a law-school exam question’

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Mac Williamson is not formally suing the San Francisco Giants because he cannot. Under California law, an employee whose injury arises from his or her employment only can seek workers’ compensation.

So Williamson and his attorneys, Scott Erlewine and Michael Levinson, are not aiming their complaint at the club officially but obliquely, naming the China Basin Ballpark Company as the defendant, suing the owner and operator of Oracle Park — which is controlled by the club’s ownership group.

That will be an early decision a judge will have to make — whether the group is indeed separate from the team — in electing whether to proceed with a case in which Williamson says bullpen mounds located on the field ended his career. The former Giants outfielder tripped over the mounds while chasing down a foul ball on April 24, 2018, hit his head on the nearby wall, and a career that he argues was about to take off stayed grounded.

Williamson said the concussion he sustained has lingered, and through the ensuing demotion to the minor leagues, eventual release by the Giants and failed attempts with other clubs, he experienced “vision problems, bouts of vertigo-like symptoms, motion sickness, and other symptoms as well,” the complaint says.

If the suit is to be successful, the 30-year-old’s team will have to prove 1) he was about to emerge as a bona-fide major leaguer; 2) the concussion kept from achieving that and 3) the operators of the ballpark were negligent in placing the mounds on the playing field and did not act soon enough to prevent serious injury.

If it sounds tricky, well, “It’s like a law-school exam question,” said Jim Sell, a San Francisco managing partner for nationwide insurance/civil litigation defense firm Tyson & Mendes, and, full disclosure, a Giants fan. “Or a bar-exam question — there are a lot of issues here.”

KNBR talked with a pair of lawyers on the phone this week to sort through some of those issues:

Was Williamson about to become a legitimate major leaguer?

Williamson was a solid prospect, but not a can’t-miss one.

In 2015, before his first call-up, he was ranked No. 13 in the Giants’ system by MLB Pipeline, a power bat who made his way through the minors after getting drafted in the third round in 2012.

He struggled at the big-league level through parts of three seasons, leading to his working with outside hitting instructor Doug Latta prior to the ’18 season. He sizzled to begin that minor league year, knocking six home runs in 11 games while batting .487. The Giants called him up for a fourth year hoping this time would be better than the others, and it was: He hit two homers in four games, then blasted a third after banging his head on the wall in game five of his season.

“In April 2018, Plaintiff was one of the best power hitters in Major League Baseball,” the suit reads.

Convincing a jury a fallen prospect had found the right swing and was about to emerge as a major league threat — and thus setting himself up for millions — would be a significant challenge.

“Is that [five-game sample] enough to really show what the full trajectory of his career would have been?” asked Landon Vivian, a personal injury attorney at The Barnes Firm in Oakland (and an A’s fan). “You have to look at the sample size here, and is that going to give you a strong enough case to really present that he would have had this long career if [the concussion] hadn’t happened?”

Baseball fans know plenty of flashes in the pan, which are far more common than longtime major leaguers. Williamson’s side would lean on the expertise of Latta, whose advice on swing changes turned around the careers of stars like Justin Turner. If the case makes it to a jury, Team Oracle Park would cite the fickleness and elusiveness of baseball success.

Did the concussion, and not other factors, prevent Williamson from succeeding?

The lawsuit attempts to strongly answer “yes.”

“The concussion caused a steep decline in Plaintiff’s performance level and effectively ended Plaintiff’s Major League Baseball career,” says the complaint.

The attorneys contended Williamson’s team will call up doctors who point to the long-term effects concussions can have, while the opposing side will say that two and a half years later, perhaps he just was not good enough for a longer big-league career.

Williamson says he has battled vision issues, among other concerns, since the concussion. Team Oracle Park can argue that in 2019, a year removed from the incident, he batted .378 with nine home runs in 23 games with Triple-A Sacramento, again earning a promotion. He then struggled in 15 games at the major league level (hitting .118) before he was designated for assignment. He had a short stint with the Mariners but made no breakthrough.

Was Williamson complaining to players, coaches and people around him about the symptoms through this time? Both sides will try to find evidence.

Is the ballpark at fault?

Oracle Park was one of three ballparks at the time that situated its bullpen mounds on the playing field. The A’s and Rays, the other two (both trying to get new parks), have not dealt with lawsuits or serious injuries.

Though perhaps it is less a factor of the mounds themselves and more an issue of their placement within the park.

“If this happened at the Oakland Coliseum, and if he had tripped over those mounds, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Sell said. “What makes this different is how close those bullpen mounds are to the wall at Oracle. … Yes, he assumed the risk of injury by stepping on the field. But his attorneys are going to argue [the owner/operators of Oracle Park] exposed him to an increased risk of harm.”

Williamson’s team is attempting to argue that the ballpark operators knew the dangers of the mounds when they were installed, when they already were on the decline across the league; a release from the attorneys stated then-Giants managing partner Peter Magowan told Williamson that the mounds were placed there against the wishes of then-commissioner Bud Selig over safety concerns upon the park opening in 2000.

Further, the suit claims that six weeks after Williamson’s injury, Magowan apologized and “said he felt responsible for his injuries.”

Williamson’s team will hope there were witnesses to the conversation. Magowan died in January 2019, and if no one overheard the alleged comments, the defense would argue the comments are hearsay.

The bullpen mounds remained on the playing field during the 2019 season, when San Francisco outfielder Steven Duggar tripped over them and hurt his wrist, which is listed in the complaint. As players from other teams had scares as well, the complaint digs up quotes from Bruce Bochy, Mike Krukow, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, all alluding to the dangers of the mounds.

In between the 2019 and ’20 campaigns, the Giants removed the mounds. While they also wanted to increase offense in the pitcher-friendly confines, the release stated the mounds were being moved beyond the outfield fences to “increase player safety and enhance fan engagement.”

In moving the mounds, were the Giants admitting fault? Like everything else here, it’s tricky.

The law does not want to punish people and businesses for fixing problems. Subsequent remedial measures, as they are known, generally are “inadmissible to prove negligence or culpable conduct in connection with the event,” California law states.

But there are exceptions. If the Giants solely wanted to juice up the park, they probably could have done so without touching the mounds.

“Technically, it is irrelevant, but the jury’s going to hear about it,” Sell said. “Mac’s attorneys will argue it is relevant to show the mounds could have been moved.”

What’s the precedent?

It’s hard to find a direct ancestor, though there are imperfect analogous cases.

Reggie Bush successfully sued the Rams, who were ordered to pay the running back $4.95 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages after he slipped on a concrete strip just off the playing field that his momentum brought him to, suffering a season-ending MCL injury. The then-St. Louis Rams were found to be negligent in keeping the ring of concrete exposed at what was then called the Edward Jones Dome.

Bush, though, was an NFL star with established credentials who could much easier estimate the monetary figure he lost.

Greg Reynolds, a pitcher who appeared in 33 major league games from 2008-13, was attempting to work his way back to the majors in 2016, when a man on LSD attacked him at his Half Moon Bay home. Reynolds punched him in self defense and claimed his pitching hand was never the same. He eventually was awarded $2.3 million in a civil suit aimed at the attacker and the host of the party from which his attacker came.

Perhaps Reynolds, who had not pitched in the big leagues in three years, is a case to look for monetary precedent. If the case proceeds, Williamson’s team would have a difficult time establishing damages for a player with 160 big-league games played, without much success, in his career.

So what happens next?

Statistically speaking, Vivian said, most suits do not reach a jury, either getting settled or thrown out before that step. But Williamson has a case.

“I don’t think this is the type of case that a judge would dismiss,” Sell said. “I think a judge would have a jury decide it.”

If so, it would not be heard for “at least another two years,” he said, because of the COVID-19 backlog.


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