On Monday July 18th, 2016 over 50 former professional wrestlers filed a class action lawsuit against the WWE alleging that they each suffered “long term neurological injuries” due to the WWE’s absolute failure to treat them in “any medically competent or meaningful manner.” The lawsuit further states that the WWE had “fraudulently misrepresented and concealed” the nature and extent of injuries sustained while wrestling. The injury alleged in the lawsuit is known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.
CTE was originally discovered in boxers in the 1920’s. However, recent studies have found CTE in other professional athletes or anyone who has repeatedly experienced head trauma.
This repeated trauma causes brain degeneration which can be seen in terms of memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia. With CTE, symptoms can begin within a few months following the trauma or can begin to develop decades later.
In this lawsuit, for the former WWE stars to prove that the WWE was negligent, they must show: 1) that the WWE (the defendant) owed them a legal duty of care; 2) that the WWE breached that duty; 3) that the wrestlers suffered injury; and 4) the cause of that injury was the WWE’s conduct.
One of the key issues in this lawsuit will likely be whether the contact sports exception will apply. It is generally acknowledged that an athlete assumes a certain amount of risk when he or she plays a contact sport. Even when following all the rules there is always a chance that a participant may sustain significant injuries. For this reason, courts have created the contact sports exception for negligence claims due to the voluntary nature of certain contact sports.
In their complaint, the Plaintiffs spoke of the possibility of the WWE raising a contact sports exception for negligence liability stating that it would fail because all “WWE wrestling matches, unlike other contact sports, involve very specific moves that are scripted, controlled, directed and choreographed by WWE. As such the moves that resulted in Named Plaintiff’s head injuries were the direct result of the WWE actions.”
For the WWE to be held liable, therefore, their conduct must be so reckless as to be outside the range of the ordinary conduct in the sport or intentionally harmful. In every sport there are many inherent risks, for example: getting hit by a baseball during a baseball game or getting tackled in the course of a football game. Therefore, the WWE’s actions would have to be more than merely negligent.
Moreover, the Plaintiffs allege that the repeated head trauma occurred when the choreographed moves were performed correctly. They further state in the lawsuit that the culture of the WWE was “brutal, with near total disregard for [their] health and safety”. Many of the Plaintiffs allege being told to “walk it off” after a concussion and many felt that you kept your mouth shut or suffered “heat” from the front office.
In the last few years the WWE has been investing in CTE research and studies- however, in the time since they began these investments not a single wrestler’s brain has been studied.
In recent years other professional athletes have brought class action lawsuits related to players having suffered brain injuries. In a suit against the NFL, former professional football players accused the NFL of being aware of the “risks associated with repetitive traumatic brain injuries but failing to warn and protect the players against the long-term risks, and ignoring and concealing this information from players”. In April of this year, a federal judge upheld the settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players to the possible tune of 1 billion in payouts.