Record $18M Settlement For Wrestler’s Family
Fell 78 Feet To His Death In WWF
By Stephanie S. Skinner
The family of professional
wrestler Owen Hart and the World Wrestling Federation
have agreed to an $18 million settlement after Hart was
killed performing a stunt entry at Kemper Arena in Kansas
City during a televised wrestling event.
The settlement agreement also ends litigation brought
by the Hart family against the city of Kansas City, WWF
principals Vince and Linda McMahon, and two stunt riggers.
Experts say the settlement, which was approved Nov. 7
by Jackson County Circuit Judge Douglas Long Jr., may
be the highest anywhere for a wrongful death lawsuit.
Kansas City attorneys Gary C. Robb and Anita Porte Robb,
who represented Hart’s widow, two young children
and parents, sued the WWF for negligence in failing to
provide safe equipment for the stunt and for negligent
hiring. They pointed out that the WWF did not have a stunt
coordinator to ensure safety and that Hart had no training
or experience with the particular type of stunt.
The Robbs claimed that a snap shackle device on the harness
used to lower Hart into the arena was intended for use
only in yacht racing. The manufacturers of the harness
and cabling systems and the individuals who rigged the
stunt were also originally named as defendants.
"Not surprisingly, there was no authoritative treatise
on how to handle a case involving the fall of a professional
wrestler during a failed stunt," said Gary Robb.
"A number of different legal theories had to be combined
and the interaction of theories and defendants made for
a challenging lawsuit."
Kansas City attorney Craig O'Dear, who represented the
WWF, noted that the federation has a claim for contribution
pending against the sellers and manufacturers of the snap
"Lewmar Ltd. is the primary defendant as the manufacturer
of the device that dropped the wrestler, and we are proceeding
against them," said O'Dear.
O'Dear noted that the discovery master appointed in the
case has scheduled a hearing for Dec. 7 to rule on pending
motions and to set up a discovery schedule.
Hart, known as the Blue Blazer, died May 23, 1999 when
the harness unexpectedly opened as he was suspended by
a single line 78 feet above the wrestling ring during
the pay-for-view television event. He suffered a transected
aorta upon impact and survived for several minutes after
the fall. Police were unable to revive him.
The lawsuit was brought by Hart’s widow, Martha;
his two children, ages 3 and 7; and his parents, Stu and
Helen Hart. Stu was also a former professional wrestler
and promoter as was Owen’s brother, Bret, known
as The Hitman. The family lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
The Robbs filed a 118-page petition containing 46 counts
against 13 defendants in June 1999 in Jackson County Circuit
The suit alleged that the WWF was negligent in failing
to provide safe and proper equipment for the stunt. The
manufacturers of the harness and cable system and the
individuals who rigged the stunt were also named as defendants.
The lawsuit sought punitive damages on the grounds that
the WWF ignored safety concerns and engineered risky stunts
to increase cable viewers and ticket sales.
In October, the WWF filed a declaratory judgment action
in federal court in Bridgeport, Conn., to have the dispute
settled under Connecticut law. The WWF argued that this
was necessitated under Hart’s contract and because
the federation is headquartered there.
The Robbs successfully argued that venue was proper in
Missouri because the act occurred in Missouri and the
witnesses were located in Missouri. Gary Robb pointed
out that Hart’s family was not a party to the contract
and that they would not have been able to obtain personal
jurisdiction over some of the defendants in Connecticut.
The WWF's initial offer of $17 million was rejected. The
case then settled for $18 million after mediation. Hart’s
wife will receive $10 million, the children will get $3
million each and Hart’s parents will get $1 million
The settlement was approved over the objection of Lewmar
Ltd., the English manufacturer of the snap shackle device.
Lewmar argued that the settlement would limit its ability
to defend against the WWF's reimbursement claim.
Kansas City attorney Paul S. Wickens represents Lewmar
Ltd., which was dismissed by the Hart family along with
Amspec Inc., the seller of the shackle, in April 1999.
"We had been dismissed by the plaintiffs early on
because of their well-founded belief that we had no liability,"
said Wickens. "Evidently, the WWF disputes that and
is seeking to maintain a contribution action against us.
"There was a good faith settlement issued so the
contribution claim should be barred," he said.
"We have a complete release from the plaintiffs,
and we see this as an effort to second guess the Robbs'
assertion that the WWF is primarily liable," Wickens
The plaintiffs' experts included the chief of safety for
Walt Disney World Enterprises and three stunt and rigging
experts. Anita Robb said that retaining such people early
on was an important strategy in the case because the plaintiffs
were able to "pretty much preempt the field."
In fact, Robb noted that the defendants had not identified
any experts at the time of settlement.
"It was necessary to identify early on the best experts
out there because in some industries there are only two
or three such people," she said.
Robb added that the plaintiffs' experts had performed
stunt design for celebrities such as Madonna, Elton John
and Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan, and were acknowledged to
be tops in their field.
"They were absolutely essential to the lawsuit in
a couple of respects. First, they understood all of the
pressures in the stunt industry, and also their level
of outrage about what happened transcended a lot of the
case," she said.
The plaintiffs had taken more than 50 depositions in the
case and had completed most of the discovery.
Gary Robb said it was also helpful in this case to hire
a non-testifying consultant to bring the attorneys up
to speed on the world of professional wrestling. "I
had little to no knowledge of professional wrestling before
the case," he admitted.
"We hired someone who was willing to get involved
on a consulting basis but did not want to testify or to
be identified in order to save us from pursuing dead ends,"
"This proved to be an extremely valuable strategy
in this case in helping us learn the players and leading
us to our experts," Robb pointed out.
Robb also advised practitioners to keep in the back of
their minds what will eventually be submitted to the jury.
"Start early to draft jury instructions because this
will identify inconsistent theories and will help you
to focus on the legal theories most likely to prevail,"
And he noted that "clients come to lawyers believing
a certain party or parties are solely responsible for
an injury where the true facts and the law would indicate
"It's important to assess not only the parties present
and temporally related to the action but to go back in
time and investigate other triggering mechanisms,"