ATLANTA - When New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez strode to the plate, Greg Murrey rose to do what thousands of other fans were doing at Turner Field: lustily boo the controversial superstar.
But Murrey never had the chance. From his second-row seat in the upper deck, the 60-year-old grandfather lost his balance, toppling forward through the front-row seats. Then he tumbled over a 30-inch-high guardrail and fell to the lower level about 40 feet below. Murrey was dead on arrival at Grady Memorial Hospital.
Murrey’s family filed a lawsuit two years ago, contending his death on Aug. 29, 2015, could have been avoided.
The Braves and Major League Baseball knew that fans seated near railings were at risk because several fans had fallen at other ballparks with similar railings, according to recent court filings. The suit, brought by Murrey’s widow and their two children, names both the team and MLB as responsible for not raising the railings at Turner Field.
The court papers indicate that members of the Braves’ own security staff had expressed concerns about the height of the railings at Turner Field. And the motions include newly disclosed testimony by Texas Rangers executives explaining why they raised the height of their guardrails in 2011 to 42 inches tall after a fan fell to his death at Globe Life Park in Arlington.
“(Y)ou go to the upper deck and those angles are really steep so people can view the field,” Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher who became president of the Rangers organization, said in a deposition last year for the Murrey’s lawsuit. “And are they safe? If I was up there with my grandkids I’d be very nervous because kids will be kids and somebody gets excited and they run down and lean over the rail.”
The Murreys have asked MLB to require ballparks to raise railings or install fall-prevention netting to prevent other deaths, the family’s attorneys, Michael Neff and Mike Caplan, said in a statement adding, “MLB has chosen not to take action. It is the family’s hope that MLB and the Braves will listen to a jury.”
Neither the Braves nor MLB would answer questions about the litigation or Murrey’s fall. “(They) do not feel it is appropriate to comment to the press about this pending litigation,” Doug Scribner, a lawyer representing both parties, said.
In pretrial testimony filed with the court, former Braves President John Schuerholz defended the safety of Turner Field’s railings, noting they were above the minimum height required by building codes.
“We know that ours at Turner Field have done the job for us until this, this unique circumstance with Mr. Murrey,” Schuerholz said. “And so we didn’t feel like we were wrong. We felt like we were doing things correctly.”
At the Braves’ new stadium in Cobb County, SunTrust Park, the height of the upper deck railings is 36 inches, according to court filings.
In their statement, Neff and Caplan said the Braves and MLB could have taken action to protect fans, just as they did in 2016 when netting behind home plate was extended to protect spectators from being seriously injured by foul balls and broken bats entering the stands. At that time, the Braves faced a lawsuit filed on behalf of a 6-year-old girl whose skull was shattered by a foul ball at Turner Field.
A review of the mountainous court filings so far in the Murrey case indicates the Braves are taking a similar line-in-the-sand approach to the Murrey suit that they employed in the netting litigation, until they settled that case for an undisclosed sum last year.
LONGTIME FAN LIKED HIS UPPER-DECK SEATS
Greg Murrey, who was called “Ace,” split season tickets with a friend and had been sitting in the upper deck seats in Section 401 behind home plate for years. A Roswell insurance executive, he liked the seats because they were relatively inexpensive and had a great view of the field, his widow, Laura Murrey, said in a pretrial deposition.
Greg Murrey loved the Braves and was such a passionate baseball fan he collected hundreds of signed baseballs, photos and pennants, she said.
When he stood up to heckle Rodriguez at the Braves-Yankees game, Murrey hyperventilated, causing him to fall forward, medical experts determined.
When questioning Laura Murrey, a lawyer representing the Braves and MLB repeatedly asked her about her late husband’s drinking habits. Toxicology reports showed that, when he died, Greg Murrey had a blood-alcohol content of 0.104, which is above the legal limit of 0.08 for adults to drive.
Laura Murrey testified that people sitting next to her husband told her he did not appear to be inebriated. It’s also the Braves’ policy to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages to anyone who appears visibly intoxicated.
Other arguments aside, however, the crux of the litigation is whether the 30-inch-high railing along the upper deck at Turner Field was tall enough to ensure fan safety. According to court documents, MLB has advised teams that guardrails can be as low as 26 inches — the minimum height set decades ago under the International Building Code.
But that standard, adopted to ensure a clear view for spectators, is outdated and no longer applies to baseball stadiums, motions filed on behalf of the Murrey family contend. The family says the Braves should have followed the lead of the Texas Rangers, which raised its guardrails after two accidents occurred at their stadium when fans fell over the railing and one of them died from the fall.
'PROTECT OUR FANS FROM THEMSELVES'
During the 2010 season, Tyler Morris tumbled over a railing while trying to catch a foul ball at the Rangers' stadium. He survived the 30-foot fall but suffered a skull fracture.
On July 7, 2011, Shannon Stone, a 39-year-old firefighter, flipped over the 30 1/2-inch rail while trying to catch a foul ball tossed to him by outfielder Josh Hamilton, court motions say. Stone died after crashing 20 feet to the concrete flooring below with his young son Cooper looking on.
Just weeks after Stone’s death, the Rangers decided to raise the guardrails after determining a person’s center of gravity, which is typically around the waistline, is about 39 inches high. According to court filings, research by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration dating back to 1976 found that a railing of 42 inches in height would be above the center of gravity of 95 percent of adults.
Before the 2012 season, the Rangers spent $1.1 million to erect the new 42-inch railings.
In his September 2017 deposition for the Murrey lawsuit, Nolan Ryan said raising the heights of the rails was the right thing to do.
“I think that was the natural response when you see something like that happen twice,” Ryan said. “I just felt that we probably need to protect our fans from themselves.”
Fans, who are bigger today than when the 26-inch minimum code was adopted, can also collapse from heat exhaustion or trip while walking down an aisle, Ryan said. And fans are more “overzealous” these days when trying to catch foul balls.
“You see people do things to get a baseball that you wonder why they want to injure themselves like that over a $10 baseball,” Ryan said. “But I think it’s just the response of being at the game and being a fan.”
'I HOPE OUR SPECS AREN'T SIMILAR TO THEIRS'
MLB was well aware of the Rangers’ decision to raise its guardrails higher than required by current building codes, a newly disclosed MLB email shows.
“(The Rangers’ work) has convinced them that the height required by these codes is inadequate to guarantee the safety of fans who are engaged in activities at their seat locations other than simply sitting,” John McHale, the league’s chief information officer, wrote to Executive Vice President Rob Manfred, who is now MLB’s commissioner, shortly after the Rangers’ decision.
In 2012, the Rangers received the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security award for its response to Shannon Stone’s fatal fall. The team was nominated for the award by MLB, a court filing says.
The Braves were also aware of the railing issues at the Rangers’ stadium.
On July 7, 2010, Lt. Randell Robinson, of the Atlanta Police Department, who worked the Turner Field security detail, emailed a news story about Tyler Morris’ fall at the Rangers' stadium to Larry Bowman, then the Braves’ vice president of stadium operations.
Apparently unaware there was only a slight difference in the height of the rails at Turner Field and the Rangers' stadium, Robinson emailed Bowman, saying, “I hope our specs are not similar to theirs.”
In response, Bowman appeared to say he had foreseen such a tragedy. “When I visited their ballpark well before the first fall I commented on how low their rails were,” he replied.
“Oooooooo,” Robinson wrote back. “Not good.”
To which Bowman replied, “My psycho, oops, I mean psychic powers at work.”
Bowman, who no longer works for the Braves, declined to comment on the email exchange.
In their statement, lawyers Neff and Caplan said safety studies for four decades have shown that a 42-inch guardrail is the minimum height required to prevent falls and unnecessary deaths.
“Even though the Braves and MLB knew that numerous fans had fallen over low rails, neither took action to protect fans in Atlanta,” they said. “They did not raise the railing height at Turner Field, they did not install safety netting to catch anyone who might fall and they did not make any other efforts to ensure a safe condition in the upper deck.”
Georgia State University took control of Turner Field in January 2017, and the 30-inch railings remain at what’s now named Georgia State Stadium. The university decided not to raise them after its design consultant said the railings met existing safety and International Building Code requirements, Ramesh Vakamudi, GSU’s vice president for facilities management, said.
GSU does not allow spectators access to the upper deck at football home games because not enough people attend the games. But the school did open up the upper deck for the stadium’s inaugural concert — the well-attended Foo Fighters show in April.
Almost all of the court motions filed in the guardrail safety case against the Atlanta Braves and Major League Baseball have something in common: They are heavily redacted with blacked-out passages.
Shortly after the suit was filed two years ago, lawyers representing the family of Greg Murrey and those representing the Braves and MLB agreed to shield “highly confidential” information from public view. But the Murrey family’s attorneys now contend the Braves and MLB are going too far and that many of their redactions are unjustified and improper.
As of the end of July, a court motion said, the Braves and MLB had designated 5,832 of the 9,475 documents they’d produced during pretrial discovery as “highly confidential.” As a result, that information is being shielded from view in public court filings. This includes details of prior falls by fans at Turner Field and the club’s investigations of them, the motion said.
In some instances, the only harm caused by the public disclosure of such information is the “potential embarrassment” to the Braves and MLB, and embarrassment is insufficient to justify such an exception, the motion said.
Moreover, the Murreys’ lawyers said, the issues raised by the family “could affect millions of baseball fans and have wider implications for stadium safety across the country.” The public’s interest in more disclosure outweighs the need to redact vast portions of the court pleadings, their motion said.
The Braves and MLB are opposing the plaintiff’s motion to bar the liberal use of designating documents as highly confidential. Some of the documents at issue pertain to insurance programs, emergency procedures, stadium security, public relations strategy and confidential business planning, and the Braves and MLB have a legitimate and significant privacy interest in them, their motion said.
John R. Mather, of the State Court of Fulton County, who is presiding over the case, will ultimately decide this issue.
This article was written by Bill Rankin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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