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Wilson Sporting Goods v. Edwin W. Hickox

January 31, 2013


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-1489-08) (Hon. John Ramsey Johnson, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mcleese, Associate Judge

(Argued October 23, 2012

Before FISHER, OBERLY, and MCLEESE, Associate Judges.

Baseball umpire Edwin Hickox was injured while wearing a mask manufactured by Wilson Sporting Goods Company. Mr. Hickox and his wife brought products-liability claims against Wilson. A jury found for the Hickoxes on all claims. Wilson appeals, arguing that the Hickoxes presented expert testimony that lacked an adequate foundation; that Wilson was entitled to a jury instruction on assumption of risk; and that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict. We affirm.


The Hickoxes‟ evidence at trial indicated the following. In 2005, at an annual retreat for Major League Baseball umpires, a Wilson representative gave Mr. Hickox an umpire‟s mask with what the representative claimed was a new, safer design. Several months later, Mr. Hickox wore the mask while working behind home plate as an umpire during a game in Washington, D.C. In the top of the ninth inning, a foul-tipped ball struck the mask. The impact of the ball gave Mr. Hickox a concussion and damaged a joint between the bones in Mr. Hickox‟s inner ear. As a result, Mr. Hickox suffered permanent hearing loss of mild to moderate severity.

The mask was a traditional umpire‟s mask, but had a newly designed throat guard that angled forward instead of extending straight down. According to the Hickoxes, the throat guard should have had a center wire and should have extended straight down with no forward angle. Because the mask lacked these features, when the ball hit the throat guard, the mask did not deflect the ball but rather temporarily trapped the ball, concentrating the ball‟s energy at the point of impact. As a result, the mask was driven into Mr. Hickox‟s jaw with great force.

Safer, alternative masks were sold at the time of the incident. If Mr. Hickox had been wearing either a hockey-style mask or a traditional mask with a throat guard that extended straight down, he probably would not have suffered the injury.

Mr. Hickox believed that Wilson tested new products and ensured that they were safe before selling them. In fact, Wilson did not test the type of mask worn by Mr. Hickox to determine the forces that would be transferred to the wearer‟s head upon impact. Such testing would have shown the mask to be defective, because the mask can trap balls rather than deflect them.

Mr. Hickox anticipated that the mask would disperse the force created when a ball hit the mask. That is what the product-design engineers at Wilson intended the mask to do and what Wilson‟s representative told Mr. Hickox the mask would do. When Mr. Hickox was injured, the mask failed to serve this purpose, because of the mask‟s defective design.

In contrast to the Hickoxes‟ version of events, Wilson contended the following at trial. The ball hit the mask above the throat guard, not on it, and so the same injury would have occurred even if the mask had not had a throat guard at all. Wilson intended the mask to provide protection by deflecting balls away from the wearer‟s head, and the mask accomplished this objective during the incident. At the time of the incident, there were no design or testing standards for wire baseball masks. The mask was designed using feedback from baseball players and umpires, and the forward angle improved the mask‟s utility by preventing the throat guard from hitting against the umpire‟s chest protector and dislodging or being knocked out of alignment.

Other companies sold masks with forward-angled throat guards, and those masks were not associated with injuries like Mr. Hickox‟s. The mask had been field-tested for over five years, and had been lab-tested before the incident. Before the incident, Mr. Hickox had used the mask many times without injury. After the incident, Mr. Hickox suffered additional head injuries while umpiring, even though he was then wearing the hockey-style mask that he claimed to be a safer, alternative design.*fn1

Mr. Hickox was an experienced umpire who knew that participating in sports creates the risk of injury, that no face mask can guarantee safety, and that injury is more likely without protective equipment.

At the close of trial, the judge submitted several tort claims to the jury: strict liability for a defective product, design defect, negligent design, design defect due to failure to warn, and breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. The jury rendered verdict for the Hickoxes on ...

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