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Can a COVID-Positive Baseball Player Face Legal Problems for Hugging Teammates?

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 27: Justin Turner #10 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 in Game Six to win the 2020 MLB World Series at Globe Life Field on October 27, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Returning to competition during the coronavirus pandemic, professional sports leagues have created strict player testing regimens to minimize risks of spreading the disease.

But what happens if a player tests positive, ignores quarantine orders, and puts his teammates at risk with physical contact?

That's a question that has arisen following the Los Angeles Dodgers' recent World Series victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.

On the evening of October 27, Los Angeles Dodgers' third baseman Justin Turner received the news that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

This information was doubly troubling for Turner because it came in the seventh inning of Game Six of the World Series, with his team just two innings away from a championship. Major League Baseball has created stringent protocols about the procedures that teams are supposed to follow in that situation, so Turner was pulled from the lineup and quarantined in a doctor's office at the stadium.

After the Dodgers recorded the final out, the players poured onto the field to celebrate. Turner emerged from the doctor's office, intent on joining them, but was told by Major League Baseball security that he needed to stay isolated.

Ignoring them, Turner ran onto the field and took part in the celebration. At first, he was wearing a mask as he joined in the hugging. But when the team gathered for a photograph surrounding the championship trophy, he removed it as he reclined in the front row, shoulder to shoulder with manager Dave Roberts, a cancer survivor.

Will There Be Consequences?

Turner's actions have attracted a lot of attention and a lot of criticism, including a harsh assessment from Major League Baseball itself.

“While a desire to celebrate is understandable, Turner's decision to leave isolation and enter the field was wrong and put everyone he came in contact with at risk," MLB said in a statement. “When MLB Security raised the matter of being on the field with Turner, he emphatically refused to comply."

That last part sounds a lot like MLB trying to remove itself from any potential liability, should there be any legal repercussions from Turner's actions.

And that, in turn, raises the question: What might those legal repercussions be?

COVID-19 Liability is Hard to Prove

In the early stages of the pandemic, many lawyers weighed in on the question of personal liability. If someone with COVID-19 knowingly interacts with other people and someone gets infected, could that person sue the spreader? The consensus has been that it's difficult because it's hard to prove that the disease didn't come from someone else.

But on October 30, the website Yahoo Sports suggested that the Turner incident might be a bit different.

Yahoo Sports pointed to a theory that a spreader could be prosecuted under the nation's anti-terrorism statutes for intentionally spreading the disease for malicious purposes. As the article then pointed out, however, this is obviously unlikely since Turner's intention was celebration, not infection.

A more relevant point, though, came from Gregory Keating, a professor at the University of California's Gould School of Law, who suggested that a plausible argument could be made for the crime of battery.

“The tort of battery covers 'offensive' as well as 'harmful contacts," Keating said. “Touching someone else when you know you have a highly transmissible, dangerous disease and might infect them is contact that a jury could very well find to be 'offensive.'"

It is important to note here that the only actions directed at Turner have been verbal criticisms – not lawsuits.

Major League Baseball, however, says it's not finished. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred says his office “is beginning a full investigation into this matter."

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