While many people think the NFL’s concussion litigation could end up changing the game (some may argue it already has), it could very well be a lawsuit filed last week by former Detroit Lions and New York Giants linebacker Barrett Green. Green, who played in the NFL from 2000-2004, is suing the Washington Redskins and their former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for an on the field hit in 2004, by former Redskins tight end Robert Royal, who is also named in the lawsuit. The hit resulted in a severe knee injury for Green and ended his career. Williams is best known for “Bountygate”, in which he was accused of implementing a system in which his players were paid to injure players on the opposing team, while he was a defensive coordinator with the New Orleans Saints.
Green alleges that a bounty on him led to his injury and he is entitled to $10 million in lost wages. He was in the first year of a 5 year, $13 million contract when he was injured. The reason this lawsuit, if successful, is more likely to change the NFL is it could open the flood gates to individual lawsuits from players alleging the same as Green. Any player who feels he was a target of a Williams bounty could file a suit in hopes of cashing in.
There are a few substantial obstacles Green will have to overcome in order to be successful. First, the football is an inherently violent game; courts have generally held that when a player steps onto the field of play, he accepts a certain amount of risk associated with doing so. Courts have stated that in order for there to be a claim for injury on the field of play, the plaintiff must show a reckless disregard for safety and an intent to injure outside the scope of the game. This principle is commonly referred to as the “contact sports exception” to negligence. Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979) is a primary case that courts look to when ruling on situations such as this.
In Hackbart, the plaintiff, Dale Hackbart, was injured during a game between the Bengals and the Denver Broncos. Bobby Thompson of the Broncos had just intercepted a pass from the Bengals and returned it to midfield. Frustrated by the interception, Bengals fullback Charles “Boobie” Clark, struck Hackbart in the back of the head with his forearm. No penalty was called on the play and both players finished the game. Hackbart, after being waived by the Broncos later that season, sought medical attention and it was discovered he had a neck fracture from the hit by Clark. Hackbart sued the Bengals and the court ultimately ruled that although players consent to a certain amount of violence when stepping on the football field, conduct expressly prohibited by the rules and done with the intention to injure, can be the basis for civil liability. See Id.
The idea is that actions that occur on the field of play are not looked at the same as they would be if they occurred off the field. For example, if you are tackled by someone while walking down the street, there’s a great chance the person who tackled you will be arrested and charged with battery and that you will be able to successfully sue them. Although a certain amount of contact is assumed in football, the fact that football is an inherently violent game, does not justify players intentionally injuring other players. This is the principle that Green will have to hang his hat on when arguing his case. He will have to show that the bounties Williams was accused of offering while coaching the Saints, were being offered at the time of his injury and that his injury was a result of a hit that was delivered with the intent to injure and outside of the rules of the game. It likely won’t be difficult to show that Williams was offering bounties while coaching the Redskins. According to ESPN, a number of former Redskins players admitted to Williams offering bounties while coaching them from 2004-2007.
A second obstacle Green will face is the statute of limitations may have run on his case. This means it may have been too long since the date of the injury for him to file the suit. The statute of limitations for a battery case in Maryland, where Green filed his suit, is three years. Green’s injury occurred in 2004 and so it would seem as if the statute of limitations has passed. However, there is an exception to the statute of limitations that Green may be able to invoke. The discovery rule is a common law doctrine that suggests the statute of limitations may not start running until the injured party discovers the injury. Although Green cannot claim he did not know he was injured since he tore his ACL, he will likely claim that he was unaware that the hit was outside the rules of the game and therefore unaware he had a case until the bounty scandal was uncovered in 2012. Under that presumption, the ‘clock’ on the three year statute of limitations would not have started until last year.
It will be tough however, for Green to prove that he did not know he had a case until last year. According to the suit, just two days after the hit in 2004, Green was quoted in the New York Post saying, “It wasn’t an accident, he shot at my legs; it was intentional. Hopefully the league will take notice, because they seem to do something when defensive guys do something.” Because of his admission, a court would likely rule that Green had enough information to file a lawsuit and the statute of limitations began in 2004.
Although it’s unlikely Green will prevail in his lawsuit, nothing can be written in stone. That idea has been demonstrated recently by the high profile murder cases of George Zimmerman and Casey Anthony and is demonstrated daily in courts across the nation. When a case goes to trial and is in the hands of a jury, nothing is guaranteed and anything can happen. That being said, if Green is successful, the effect on the NFL and possibly other professional sports could be enormous.