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An $18 million settlement between the family of deceased professional wrestler Owen Hart and the World Wrestling Federation was approved Tuesday by a state court judge.
The settlement ends a lawsuit brought by Hart's widow, two minor children and parents against the WWF, the city of Kansas City and other defendants over a botched stunt that led to Hart's death in Kemper Arena in May 1999.
The terms of the settlement call for Martha Hart, Hart's widow, to get $10 million; the children,8-year-old Oje Hart and 5-year-old Athena Hart, to get $3 million each; and Hart's parents, Stu and Helen Hart, to get $1 million each.
Net of attorney fees and expenses, the total settlement amount comes to about $13 million. The fee agreement of the Hart family's attorneys, the Kansas City law firm of Robb & Robb LLC and the Calgary, Alberta firm of Pipella & Co., calls for them to receive a 25 percent contingency fee. The family's legal expenses are thought to have totaled about $750,000.
The settlement amount is being paid by the World Wrestling Federation and its insurer, TIG Insurance Co. The WWF, a publicly held company, said in regulatory filings last week that it would take a $7 million charge in the wake of the settlement amount from the companies that manufactured and sold the equipment involved in the accident.
Circuit Judge Douglas Long Jr. approved the settlement after an hour-long hearing in the Jackson County Courthouse. Martha Hart, her children and her in-laws all residents of Calgary, were present at the hearing, along with more than a dozen lawyers representing the plaintiffs and defendants.
After Long announced his approval of the settlement, Martha Hart sobbed quietly as Gary Robb, one of her attorneys, sought to comfort her. The two later embraced..
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Hart , a 34-year-old wrestler known as the Blue Blazer, plunged 78 feet to his death on May 23, 1999, when the quick-release mechanism on his harness opened prematurely as he was being lowered from a catwalk into the ring.
The WWF event was televised live on pay-per-view television, although the accident itself was not shown.
The Hart family sued three weeks after the accident, alleging that the stunt was dangerous and poorly planned and that the harness system was defective.
Besides the WWF and the City of Kansas City, the settlement agreement also ends the Hart family's litigation against WWF principals Vince and Linda McMahon and stunt riggers Bobby Talbert and Matthew Allmen.
Long approved the settlement over the objection of the manufacturer of Hart's trigger-latch shackle, Lewmar Inc., which argued that the settlement could impair its ability to defend itself against the WWF's claims for reimbursement.
Both Lewmar and Amspec Inc., which sold the shackle to Hart's stunt rigger, were among the defendants originally sued by the Hart family. The family, however, dismissed both companies from the case in April.
The dismissals came after Lewmar and Amspec reached settlements with the Hart family calling for a mutual release of claims. Notably, the settlement's did not call for Lewmar or Amspec to pay any damages.
In court documents, the WWF has questioned whether those settlements were reached in good faith, and Long has yet to approve them. The WWF is concerned that the settlements will prevent it from recouping the settlement proceeds from Amspec and Lewmar.
"We're pleased that the Hart family is able to put this behind them, but we look forward to continuing this litigation so as to place responsibility on the appropriate parties," said Craig O'Dear, an attorney for the WWF, after Tuesday's hearing.
An additional impediment to the WWF's efforts to recover the $18 million arose Monday, when Amspec filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Van Nuys, Calif. The bankruptcy petition lists the WWF and the McMahons as contingent creditors.