Record $18M Settlement For Wrestler’s Family

Fell 78 Feet To His Death In WWF Stunt

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.

Challenging Lawsuit

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 shackle device.

"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.

Blue Blazer

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 Court.

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 each.

Manufacturer Dismissed

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 noted.

Experts

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," he said.

"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," he said.

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 otherwise.

"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," he said.

 

 
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