In a civil trial underway in Fresno County Superior Court, lawyers agree that Fresno architect John “Chuck” Heflebower is an avid San Francisco Giants fan, an experienced baseball player and former Little League coach.
What is in dispute is whether he should be awarded damages after being hit in the face with an aluminum baseball bat that was tossed by one of his son’s friends during a Fourth of July backyard barbecue in northeast Fresno three years ago.
Heflebower, 56, suffered a Le Fort III fracture, one of the worst skull fractures, said Fresno attorney Jason Helsel, who is representing Heflebower in a personal injury/negligence claim against 19-year-old Ryan Beard.
Helsel contends Beard, who was 16 at the time, was negligent when he accidentally threw the bat while pretending to be Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Before the injury, Heflebower and his wife, Alma, and their two sons, Tyler and Joshua, enjoyed a good life. He was an architect, outgoing, financially stable and actively involved in his sons’ lives, Helsel said. After he was hit with the bat, Heflebower sank into depression and now has an anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. His homemaker wife had to get a job to keep the family financially afloat, Helsel said.
The bat crushed Heflebower’s nose, cheekbones and eye socket bones “like an egg being smashed,” Helsel told the jury. He has had to endure several surgeries in which doctors used titanium plates to re-create his facial features, Helsel said. Heflebower also has recurring headaches, double vision and his jaw constantly hurts because his teeth don’t line up, he said.
Heflebower still needs more surgeries and counseling, Helsel said.
Beard’s attorney, Arthur Casey of San Jose, said Heflebower knew the risk of being on the playing field with his two sons and Beard. The three teenagers were playing home run derby, he said. In fact, Heflebower even took a swing with the bat at one point during the game, Casey told the jury.
“It’s an unfortunate accident,” Casey said in asking the jury to find Beard not negligent. “No one saw, heard or thought he (Ryan) did it on purpose.”
Fresno attorney Stuart Chandler, who is not associated with the case, said there is an assumption of risk when playing sports. For example, if two people are skiing down the same slope and bump into each other, they can’t sue if one of them gets hurt, Chandler said. But in this case, he pointed out that Heflebower says he was just a bystander and not participating in the game when he was hit by the bat.
He also said teens can be sued because they are old enough to know right from wrong. For example, if a teenage boy gets in a car crash and it’s his fault, he can be held liable even if it is an accident, Chandler said.
Chandler said Heflebower has a justified negligence claim because he has jumped over several legal hurdles to make it to trial.
The plaintiff lawyer’s goal is to get the Beard family’s homeowners insurance to pay Heflebower damages for emotional distress, disfigurement, physical pain, loss of enjoyment of life, grief and humiliation, Chandler said.
In opening statements Thursday, Helsel and Casey gave this account to the jury:
Tyler Heflebower and Beard have been friends since elementary school. They loved playing baseball and hanging out. Tyler and his family are Giants fans. Beard is a New York Yankees fan.
On July 4, 2013, the two teens, both 16 at the time, decided to go to the home of Debby and Guy Desrosiers near Fort Washington Golf and County Club, where Heflebower was in charge of the barbecue. The home has a large backyard with a swimming pool. Because it was hot, people spent their time swimming, playing basketball in the pool and talking about their families.
Before dinner, the three boys played home run derby with a plastic ball and a plastic bat. In home run derby, a player pitches the ball to a batter who tries to hit to an area designated as a home run. He is no longer the batter if he strikes out or if the player in the field catches the fly ball.
Because the plastic bat had a cracked handle, the boys decided to play with a small metal bat Tyler found at the Desrosiers home.
During the game, John Heflebower, who played high school and college baseball, joined the boys and took a couple of swings with the bat. He then returned to cooking dinner on the barbecue.
During dinner, Tyler and Ryan “trash talked” about an upcoming Dodgers-Giants game at Dodgers Stadium. It would be the first time Puig would play against the Giants.
“Ryan doesn’t like the Giants, so he started teasing Tyler,” Helsel told the jury.
After eating, Ryan, Tyler and Joshua returned to the area where they were playing home run derby. Ryan continued to “trash talk” about the upcoming Dodgers-Giants game.
Helsel told the jury that the kids no longer were playing home run derby. Only Ryan grabbed the metal bat and swung it slowly to demonstrate how Giants catcher Buster Posey would swing in the game. He then took a vicious cut, demonstrating how Puig would swing.
On the second hard swing, the bat flew out of Ryan’s hand.
By this time, Heflebower had finished cooking and had gone swimming. He got out of the pool and began looking for his shirt and a towel. Because he was looking away from the boys, he was unaware of what Ryan was doing, Helsel said.
Casey said witnesses are unsure how far Heflebower was from Ryan when he was hit with the bat. They estimated he was 10 to 15 feet or as far as 30 feet away, he said.
Heflebower never told the boys not to play with the metal bat or that it was dangerous, Casey said.
“He knew the rules and risk of baseball,” the lawyer said. Heflebower also knew a bat could inadvertently fly out of a player’s hand, he said.
But Helsel said Heflebower didn’t know Ryan was swinging a bat carelessly. He also said Ryan should have known better; he played baseball for Clovis West High.
“After getting hit with the bat, Chuck sees stars. He gets on his knees. He covers his face because it’s bleeding,” Helsel told the jury.
Before paramedics took him to St. Agnes Medical Center, Heflebower looked at his son and “sees fear in Tyler’s eyes.”