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Judge Joe rules: America's pastime presumes risk

These friends collaborated to win a small-claims case that ended up on the Judge Joe Brown TV show. Left to right: Eric Burgmanis, Carl Brunholzl, Matt Graetz and Troy Larson. <i>Submitted photos</i>

Two River Falls men argued as defendants Sept. 13 in the binding Hollywood court of TV's "Judge Joe Brown," after a baseball from the River Falls' team fell through a car's rear window at a July 10 game in Afton, Minn.

Youth baseball coach of 10 years Matt Graetz and dad of a player, Carl Brunholzl, appeared together on the "Judge Joe" show Nov. 14.

Neither man sought publicity about the case or the trip to California.

An anonymous tip to the Journal resulted in a small Web story about their appearance, which led to curiosity and questions...

Fly ball sets runners in motion

The River Falls Youth Baseball Association's 13-year-old traveling team had a game in Afton at Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Field, which contains four baseball diamonds and several soccer fields.

They're situated opposite each other with a gravel road between.

The teens were warming up and taking pitches for batting practice when Brunholzl's son hit a ball that landed in the rear window of a Mercedes parked on the gravel road.

The man who'd been sitting in the car walked over and was visibly upset, persistently demanding to know which child had hit the ball.

Graetz said Troy Larson talked with the man as the boys continued practice, then the coach reasoned with him before the game that he should probably move his car.

The athletic complex has a "safe lot" out of baseballs' reach, but many locals apparently park along the road to watch their kids' games, as the man had been doing when the baseball landed in his car.

Brunholzl heard about the incident not only from his son but also Larson, who called to tell him about the upset man.

He and Graetz subsequently tried to claim the broken glass on each of their homeowners' insurance, but both companies denied the claim.

"I really felt that I didn't owe him anything," Brunholzl said.

Soon after that, both men received notice by mail that the man was filing in small claims court for the $1,250 cost of his heated, tinted, tempered rear window.

Barely a day later, the men received a notice from the "Judge Joe Brown" show --and other TV-court programs -- asking if they'd like to defend their case on reality court-TV.

Apparently the syndicated shows comb through public records looking for small-claims cases with good drama.

Both men felt they had a strong case that had become a matter of principle.

They agree they were swayed to say yes when they learned that the show pays for travel, lodging, food, a small stipend for appearing, and damages if they lost the case.

Players prepare, strategize, appearFly ball sets runners in motion

Graetz and Brunholzl agree that the Judge Joe proposal appealed to their competitive nature.

Persistent contact from the plaintiff through texts and other modes had also put the two men on the defensive and upset the team players.

"We went out there to win," Brunholz said. "We weren't out there for a free vacation."

Brunholzl said Graetz gets an A+++ for the way he prepared -- with diagrams, photos of the no-parking signs, testimony that he'd asked the home-team coach what kind of balls it uses for practice.

"This was the first time something like this had happened," said Graetz, so he consulted friend Eric Burgmanis, who's an attorney and said they had a strong case.

He and Brunzholz helped each other rehearse for court.

They stayed in the heart of Hollywood for two days, reporting for 20 minutes one day to a large, cavernous studio where "Judge Joe" and many other shows are recorded.

Graetz said, "I learned a lot about reality TV," adding that as they argued the case, it seemed like an open-and-shut case in their favor.

But, when they sat down to watch the 10-minute edited version, the case seemed much more uncertain -- as if it could go either way.

Judge Joe Brown ruled in their favor but not before scolding the Woodbury complainant for dragging America's pastime into court.

"What are we doing here?!" the judge exclaimed, telling the plaintiff the case should have been settled in the parking lot.

The judge was also incredulous that the man would park beside a baseball field, amid multiple no-parking signs then become irate when a ball went through his car glass. He reminded the man that these were just kids trying to play a game.

Ultimately the rules of law he quoted, say Brunholzl, were 1) That there is an assumption of risk when parking a car at a ballpark and 2) That fly balls are an action inherent to the game.

The player's dad said he helped ease his son's worried mind by explaining the case this way: "You're not legally obligated to control the way a ball comes off your bat."

Neither local man had seen the "Judge Joe Brown" show before this case, but both say they're big fans now.

Graetz said "their" episode will air again sometime next year, but he doesn't know when. The Journal requested permission to use the copyrighted video or link to it but has not yet received an answer to the request.