The recent Reggie Bush injury award in Missouri raises interesting questions about premises liability claims and athletes as plaintiffs.
Bush, a former NFL running back, received the $12.5 million award for a knee injury he sustained at the Los Angeles Rams’ former stadium, the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Bush, then playing for the San Francisco 49ers, ran out of bounds on a punt and slipped on some concrete. He suffered a torn lateral meniscus, which ended his season. A week before Bush suffered his injury, Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown had been hurt on the same slab of concrete, sliding across it and into a wall and injuring his shoulder.
Bush, who filed suit in 2016, alleged that the Rams and the public stadium authorities “allowed a dangerous condition to exist at the Dome.” The St. Louis jury ordered the Rams to pay $4.95 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages. Bush argued that he would have signed a bigger contract for his final season in 2016 but for the injury.
Players are generally precluded from bringing personal injury suits as most claims are covered by their league’s collective bargaining agreements. CBAs typically require players to submit to the arbitration process and provide for specific remedy provisions.
Interestingly, in Bush’s case the Rams asked the Missouri Court to send Bush’s lawsuit to arbitration under the CBA. However, Bush and his attorneys successfully argued that the injury fell outside the scope of federal labor law and the health and safety provisions of the CBA. Specifically, the Missouri federal judge found that Bush’s negligence and premises liability claims were rooted in common law duties of care to invitees, not the CBA.
In another example of this type of premises claim, former NFL linebacker DeMeco Ryans is in an ongoing suit over an injury he suffered in the middle of the field during play. Ryans, playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, says he tore his Achilles tendon after making an interception because he landed on a seam in the natural grass that was in place at NRG Stadium in Houston. The surface, which has since been replaced with a permanent turf, was made of large tiles of natural grass that were stitched together. As with Bush’s case, a federal judge sent Ryans’ case back to state court, finding that the case did not turn on an interpretation of the CBA, but instead on the conduct of the Houston Texans in managing the stadium.
Is slipping on concrete or landing on a seam of grass during the course of play a premises claim? The success of these suits raises the potential that other types of injuries suffered by both professional and collegiate athletes could result in tort suits. A possibility for huge damages award similar to Bush’s exists where the players’ talent indicates a potential for large future earnings.
From the contract side, it would make sense for the league to attempt to negotiate new damages provisions in the CBA. However, based on these rulings, it may not be possible for the league to extend the damages provisions to include any and all premises liability claims. In Ryans’ case, his attorneys successfully argued that his complaint disclaims any remedy under the CBA, and that his claims were wholly based on Texas tort law concepts and thus required no interpretation of the CBA.
In sum, it would be difficult to draft a damages provision to bar any and all potential premises claims, which is what the league would have to do to prevent future cases such as these.
From the litigation side, the number of these cases will continue to grow. Collective bargaining agreements and internal rules of the sport may protect the league, but they are rarely drafted to protect players. As such, players are likely to become plaintiffs and attempt to assert their rights through the litigation process. Premises claims are a trend to watch as the number of cases by college and professional athletes grow in proportion to the frequent injuries these athletes suffer—especially football players.
Finally, in Bush and Ryans’s cases, the player was injured not at his own team’s stadium, but instead was visiting another team’s stadium. What happens when a player is injured in his own stadium? Would his individual contract bar claims against his own team? Bush originally filed suit against the St. Louis Rams, St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, but the judge dismissed the convention authority and sports complex, leaving the Rams as the sole defendant. Particularly where the stadium is owned by the owner of the team, could an even higher duty be owed to the players in that stadium? It would certainly expose the owner to liability. Which raises the final question: should Jerry be worried?
Micah Dortch and Maryssa Simpson are partners in the Dallas office of the Potts Law Firm. The firm handles a range of personal injury claims, including sports injuries, and currently represents former collegiate player Kolby Listenbee in his case against TCU.