TAKING AIM AT THE STRIPES : Referees Lately Are Becoming the Target of Many More Suits

Times Staff Writer

In the category of questionable court cases, see if you have room in your top 10 for this one:

--In Texas, a high school football player slides across the 30-yard line while making a tackle. He scrapes his arm, then suffers a severe burn in the wound caused by chemicals in the powder used to mark the 30-yard line. The player's parents sue the officials, charging that the crew should have checked the chemical composition of the 30-yard-line before the game began, to see if it was toxic.

That one was thrown out before it got to court, but this one made it:

--In New Jersey, in a men's slow-pitch softball league, a catcher, not wearing a catcher's mask, prepares to take a throw from an outfielder. He misses the ball, which hits him in the eye and causes a partial loss of vision. The catcher sues not only the city where the game was played but the umpire as well. The claim: Since the catcher had no mask, the umpire should have lent the catcher his mask before the game, then called balls and strikes from behind the pitcher.

The catcher was awarded $24,000.

One more:

--In New Jersey, a high school soccer player falls on a bottle during a game, and the broken glass severs tendons in his knee. No one has any idea how the bottle got there. The player's parents sue the referee, charging that he should have inspected the field of play for objects that didn't belong there. Result: The case was thrown out of court, but only after it had dragged on for two years.

It used to be that all a referee or umpire had to worry about was someone yelling: "You're blind, ump!" Or maybe once in a career a bottle would sail his way. Or his tires would get slashed. Now, he has to watch out for nuisance suits.

"Ten years ago, you could find two or three cases like this in the law books," said Mel Narol, a Princeton, N.J., attorney who specializes in defending sports officials in such cases. "Now, I'm involved in 10 cases like that right now and I've worked on 30 or 40 others in the last several years."

Narol, 35, who also officiates high school basketball games in New Jersey for $32.50 a game, was in the Southland last week preparing to defending a crew of Long Beach officials being sued by a city league baseball player who injured a knee in a game two years ago.

Narol conducts seminars across the country for members of the National Assn. of Sports Officials (NASO), advising them on legal matters.

"I give officials a 10-item legal check list," he said. "It's a list of things to check out before a competition begins, such as making sure the playing surface is safe, if the area immediately around the playing area is safe. They're types of things officials always did check out, but now they understand the reasons for being extremely careful go beyond the area of athlete safety.

"At clinics, where I talk about the legal vulnerability of officials today, I'm hearing officials ask things like: 'Should I get out of it? Is this too much of a risk for my family?'

"I've seen no evidence that significant numbers of high school and college officials are leaving officiating because of the fear of litigation, but a lot of them are asking themselves if they want to run the risk any longer. Lawyers in my own law firm tell me they think I'm crazy for working high school basketball games."

Narol pointed out that NASO officials are covered by $1-million worth of liability insurance, the premiums coming out of their $40 annual dues.

"No referee has lost a liability case, but we fear if one does, it'll touch off a chain reaction of similar suits," Narol said. "There have been some settlements in cases that have cost some referees some out-of-pocket money. In one case I'm familiar with, a referee spent $5,000 on a case where there was a settlement."

Narol is also involved in a case in New York, where two umpires are being sued for $10 million. A player was struck and killed by lightning during the game. According to Narol, the plaintiffs are claiming that the umpires should have stopped the game when threatening weather appeared.

In an Anaheim case, high school soccer officials are being sued by a father whose son suffered a broken leg in a game. The suit charges that the game officials were allowing illegal contact to occur in the game before the injury.

Narol points out that city league, high school and college sports officials don't wear striped shirts and whistles for the money.

"The national average for high school varsity sports officials is somewhere between $20 and $60 per game," he said. "Junior varsity level and lower, and city league officials make $20 and less per game. Division I NCAA officials make somewhere between $150 and, for major events, $400 a game.

"So it's part-time work. You're talking about guys who love sports, who maybe once were athletes themselves and who want to somehow stay active in sports. Obviously, these are very important people to the fabric of sports in our country."

Narol's case here involves a suit against a crew of $20-a-game city league baseball umpires from Long Beach. They were working a game the night of Oct. 26, 1984, at Pan American Park in Long Beach, when Greg Elvert, a carpenter, was sliding into second base, apparently trying to break up a double play.

Instead of breaking up a play, he broke his kneecap.

His foot dislodged the base and his knee struck a metal peg that was supposed to anchor the base. Because of his injured right knee, he missed two months of work.

Elvert's lawyer, Neal Daley of Norwalk, filed suit against Long Beach's Recreation and Human Services Dept. The City of Long Beach, in a cross complaint, sued the Russ Fendley Officials Assn., a group that supplies officials for the city's municipal sports program.

"We have no trial date yet--we'd prefer a settlement," Daley said.

Narol sees no relief ahead for such litigation, unless 48 states duplicate what Iowa and Georgia did recently.

"The Iowa State Court of Appeals ruled that no referee can be sued or a judgment issued against a referee on the basis of a bad call," Narol said. "The Georgia Supreme Court ruled essentially the same thing."

Narol foresees a new area of litigation involving officials in cases where video tape replays show that an official has blown a call.

"That's bound to happen," he said. "A team, a school or an athlete will seek damages in court, claiming a bad call resulted in the loss of considerable sums of money. An example would be a bad call keeping a college football team from appearing in a big money bowl game--I definitely see litigation down the road in that area."

The problem can be alleviated legislatively, Narol said.

"There is proposed legislation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that would only permit lawsuits against officials, coaches and athletic directors in the case of proven gross negligence."

He talked about the case of Don Denkinger, who muffed a crucial call in the sixth game of the last World Series.

With St. Louis three outs away from beating Kansas City, 1-0, for the championship, even Denkinger admits now that Jorge Orta of the Royals was really out on a first-base play, not safe, as he called it. Later in the inning, Kansas City scored twice to tie the Series, then won it all the next night.

Narol said: "When you think about it, officials at all levels are under great pressure to be excellent, if not perfect, all the time. And yet, it's not expected of other participants in sports. I mean, if a baseball player goes 3 for 10 all the time, he could make the Hall of Fame. But if an umpire goes 3 for 10, he's out of a job."

Narol was asked if the entire problem can't be traced to the commonly held view that America is burdened by too many lawyers.

"That's absolutely right," he said. "I just hate the thought that so many of my brethren enter into cases like this. I suppose it's human nature to believe that every time someone gets injured in a sports event, someone has to be at fault."

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