January 20, 2013
by Greg Katz
The 2012-13 National Football League (“NFL”) season, a year highlighted by seemingly endless controversy, has painted a vivid picture of the increasingly complex legal landscape of the sports industry. Of the many legal concerns facing the NFL going forward, the number and severity of on-the-field injuries has arguably garnered the most media attention. To be fair, not all injury headlines have been negative. Adrian Peterson has shocked and inspired the sports world with his unparalleled recovery (2,097 rushing yards), in regards to timeliness and effectiveness, from a horrible knee injury (torn ACL and MCL in his left knee). Peterson’s comeback, however, is but one exception to numerous injuries that hinder and even end the careers of many of the games most exciting players.
Much of the media attention to NFL injuries has been focused, understandably so, on concussions. Sources, including ESPN, HBO, The Wall Street Journal, and countless Twitter accounts to name a few, have published concussion reports focusing on an array of topics and the corresponding potential legal implications stemming from concussions suffered during the game. While concussions have grabbed most of the national spotlight, head injuries are far from the only concern threatening the careers of former and current NFL players and prospects alike. The NFL has also experienced a spike in musculoskeletal injuries—or at least in the reporting of those injuries—like the one suffered by Adrian Peterson roughly a year ago.
The playoffs have unfortunately been of no exception to this year’s ongoing trend. After the 2013 Wild Card Weekend, which included a game that featured two outstanding rookie quarterbacks and a fourteen-point comeback, most of the headlines centered around the knee injuries of Chris Clemons (Seattle Seahawks, defensive end) and Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins, quarterback). Football is obviously a violent sport and players are injured in nearly every game. With these injuries, however, there was much speculation by the media as to whether Clemons’s and Griffin’s injuries, both of which were suffered with little to no contact, were not simply results of the nature of the game, but rather of negligence that could have easily been avoided with proper field maintenance.
FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland
Immediately after the game, Clemons’s agent blamed the “crappy” field conditions at FedEx Field (home of the Redskins) for Clemons’s injury. Seattle head coach, Pete Carroll, also weighed in on the matter stating, “It was horrible, it’s a horrible field… It was as bad as a field could get for being dry. And it’s too bad. It’s really too bad, and we deserve better.” Carroll’s remarks raise some interesting questions: Legally speaking, did Clemons and Griffin deserve better? If so, who could be held liable for their injuries?
Hartmann v. SMG and Harris County Convention & Sports Corp.
These questions were recently brought to the NFL’s attention in the Hartmann v. SMG and Harris County Convention & Sports Corp. lawsuit. In Hartmann, former NFL punter, Brett Hartmann, filed a pending premises liability lawsuit against the owner and operator of Reliant Stadium (SMG and the Harris County Convention and Sports Corporation respectively), home of the Houston Texans (“Texans”), for injuries he suffered while playing in a football game there. Hartmann was injured in the last minutes of a game at Reliant Stadium on December 4, 2011. In his petition, Hartmann claims that his knee injury, which occurred while running down the field untouched, was the direct effect of his foot becoming lodged in a seam of the grass. The playing surface at Reliant Stadium has long been recognized by many as one of the worst playing surfaces at the pro and collegiate levels. Unlike most stadiums, which grow grass in one piece, Reliant Stadium imports 8’ x 8’ squares of grass and rolls the surface. This method creates seams between the squares of grass, and Hartmann claims that one of these seams was the direct cause of his knee injury.
In his complaint, Hartmann asserted he was an invitee at the time of the injury, and thus, “the defendants ha[d] the duty to provide [players playing on the football field inside Reliant Stadium] with a reasonably safe playing surface, including preventing unreasonable risks of harm.” Further, Hartmann claims that the defendants breached that duty because: (a) the defendants knew, or should have known, of the dangerous condition created by the seams on the field; (b) failed to adequately maintain the field after constant overuse; and (c), negligently failed to warn Hartmann of the dangerous condition. Hartmann further supported his claim by offering evidence that two other Houston players were injured that game during plays in which they were untouched.
Brett Hartmann (AP/Dave Einsel)
Prior to his injury, Hartmann was the leading rookie punter in the NFL. During the offseason, however, the Texans cut Hartmann from the 2012 roster. Hartmann, who still has not fully recovered, claims in his petition, “as a result of the Defendants’ negligence and conscious indifference to player safety, Hartmann may never play again.” Hartmann is seeking damages including pain and suffering, as well as lost wages and future lost income. Hartmann is also seeking medical costs, although recovery of such seems unlikely as the medical costs were probably paid for under the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.
A Claim by Griffin or Clemons Rests on “Crappy” Grounds
At first glance, it is tempting to dwell on the similarities between Hartmann’s case and the injuries suffered by Griffin and Clemons. Like Reliant Stadium, many consider the playing surface at FedEx Field to be below average— in fact, the above-mentioned Adrian Peterson injury also occurred at FedEx Field. It has also been said that the field was in terrible conditions for the Wild Card game. Seahawks fullback, Michael Robinson, compared playing on the field to “working in a sweatshop.” Additionally, Griffin and Clemons suffered their injuries after little to no contact. But when did contact become a prerequisite for a knee injury? Such injuries, although maybe less frequent, are hardly unfathomable. Many players across many different sporting events have been injured during noncontact plays and in the absence of negligence nonetheless.
There are potentially crippling issues in Hartmann’s claim, and there are factual differences in Clemons’s and Griffin’s injuries that make their respective claims even weaker. First, it is not even clear that Hartmann named the correct defendants, although he may have done so for a reason. The NFL, through its NFL Game Operations Manual, has guidelines for the teams’ playing surfaces, and holds that each NFL club, whether it owns or leases its stadium, is responsible for making sure that its playing surface meets the guidelines: “Within 72 hours of each home game, all clubs that own or lease their stadiums are required to certify that their fields are in compliance with Recommended Practices for the Maintenance of Infill and Natural Surfaces for NFL Games.” Hartmann, however, named the owner and operator of Reliant stadium as defendants rather than the Texans. It is plausible that he chose to do so because the Texans were Hartmann’s employer. Hartmann, therefore, may be barred from filing any tort action regarding a workplace injury, and limited to a remedy through a workers’ compensation program. Unlike Houston who leases their stadium, the Washington Redskins are the owners and operators of FedEx Field. Although it seems the Redskins organization may be the correct defendant, the issue of whether worker’s compensation would bar Griffin from filing a tort action against his employer for injuries he received at his workplace still remains. Clemons may be able to avoid that issue as he is not employed by the Redskins.
Second, it is unclear that the field conditions in either case would amount to negligence. As mentioned above, each team must conduct field tests to confirm that the field condition is up to League standards. Considering the fields in both games were presumptively approved, it is hard to imagine that a court, with nominal knowledge of the subject in comparison with an experienced field crew, would then find the field unfit for play. Third and perhaps most notably, as in all recreational activities, the defendants have a strong assumption of the risk defense. Here, the poor playing conditions were easily noticeable and well documented, and the players chose to play. No field can be perfect and injuries are bound to result from field conditions, but the players are well aware of the dangers inherent in their sport and they are arguably compensated accordingly.
Finally, there are material differences between Hartmann’s case and the injuries suffered at FedEx Field. Proving the cause of the injury, which Hartmann claims was a specific defect in the field, would be much harder for Clemons or Griffin. Without proof of a specific defect, it would appear to be near impossible to prove that the field conditions alone were the proximate cause of the injuries. Even more so, Griffin had previously injured his knee during the game, and suffered a more significant injury only after he continued to play; and Clemons was involved in some physical contact, albeit slight contact, when his injury occurred. One potential approach could be to analyze NFL injury statistics by field. If it could be proven that FedEx Field represents an outlier in terms of injuries, and more specifically noncontact knee injuries, there may be a much stronger case for a premises liability claim. Even then, however, it seems that a premises liability claim by either Clemons or Griffin has about as many holes in it as did the field they played on at FedEx Field.
Impact Going Forward
Hartmann’s case is set to be tried on January 14, 2014 in the Harris County 334th District Court. Regardless of the outcome of Hartmann’s case, the complaint coupled with the media’s linking of the Clemmons and Griffin injuries to unsafe playing conditions is sure to prompt a response by NFL teams and the NFL Commissioner’s Office. Liability aside, it is unquestionable that it is in the NFL’s best interests to protect its players. The NFL has an opportunity to advance those interests by simply increasing the standards of the playing surfaces throughout the League. If Hartmann wins, however, the impact will be felt far beyond the NFL, extending to professional, collegiate, and amateur sports programs around the country, all of which will not only need to worry about the health of their athletes, but will be forced to take better care of the green on the field to protect the green in their pockets.