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Why Former Pro Wrestlers Are Now Suing the WWE Over Alleged Brain Injuries

Echoing the concerns of former football players, professional wrestlers are now blaming the WWE for brain injuries.

by David Bixenspan
Jul 21 2016, 2:00pm

Sabu, one of the wrestlers now suing the WWE. Image: Mike Kalasnik/Flickr

Who is suing WWE?

Over 50 different pro wrestlers, some retired, and some still active outside of WWE. For space reasons, we won't include the full list here, but you can read it on PasteBin. The biggest stars involved would most likely be Road Warrior Animal, "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka (who was recently ruled incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 murder of his mistress), "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, Demolition (Ax and Smash), The Powers of Pain (The Warlord and The Barbarian), Marty Jannetty, Shane Douglas, Kamala, and Sabu. The plaintiffs also include octogenarian Don Leo Jonathan, who spent less than a year in WWE's predecessor company in the early 1970s. They're led by lawyer Konstantine Kyros, who filed a number of previous lawsuits against WWE in the past couple years.

What were those other lawsuits about?

Kyros attempted to model litigation after the NFL concussion lawsuit that led to a $1 billion settlement, but the football players were able to force a settlement because there was "smoking gun" evidence of the NFL trying to deceive the players about head injuries. Most of those cases (like Billy Jack Haynes' lawsuit) were thrown out for being outside of the statute of limitations, with the remaining claims expected to be dismissed soon. It's safe to say that the cases were hurt by two defendants testifying that they didn't know they were accusing WWE of fraud and one of them, Vito LoGrasso, saying that he hit his head on the ring steps in a specific match when the video showed otherwise.

Wait, if Billy Jack Haynes, who never worked for waited too long to file a lawsuit, how does Paul Orndorff have any hope of success?

That's a very good question that nobody has an answer to as of yet.

So what are they suing over this time?

A few things, and it's not all concussion-related this time:

  • Misclassifying wrestlers as independent contractors instead of employees.
  • Liability for having "recklessly endangered Plaintiffs."
  • Violating 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c), or in other words, participating in a racketeering scheme.
  • Requesting a declaratory judgment that WWE has "unconscionable contracts."
  • Wrongful death for the one instance where the estate of a deceased wrestler, Axl Rotten, is suing.
  • Fraudulent concealment, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation counts relating to the risks of head injuries.
  • Negligent hiring and negligent retention with regards to the employees and consultants that work on WWE's Talent Wellness Program, which includes drug testing, cardiac monitoring, and neurological testing.
  • OSHA violations.
  • An argument that the statute of limitations does not apply to this lawsuit.

Racketeering? Seriously?

Yes. There's a lot in there about how WWE's interstate commerce, payments to wrestlers, and so on help the case.

Isn't that what they're supposed to do, though?

Yes, but the complaint argues that Vince McMahon has used theoretically normal business activities to further his allegedly illegal enterprise, "including the procurement and execution of each Booking Contract utilized to misclassify the Plaintiffs and to thus deprive them of money and property."

Booking contract in the what now?

The standard WWE talent contract is officially the "Talent Booking Contract," and the lawsuit argues that, since they misclassified wrestlers as independent contractors, it's part of a larger scheme allowing WWE to exert improper control over the talent. Other allegations include the mailing of contracts amounting to mail fraud, and using the WWE "Contractor Nostalgia Agreement" (commonly referred to as a "Legends Contract") to induce wrestlers into signing away their ability to sue WWE. Based on the example attached to the complaint and past reports, the standard Nostalgia Contract appears to be a five year deal that gets the wrestler a $10,000 advance against future royalties.

Wasn't there already a lawsuit over the wrestlers arguing they were employees?

Yes, Levy et al v. World Wrestling Entertainment. It was thrown out due to being filed outside of the statute of limitations. The complaint in the new lawsuit argues that they're different because Levy "concerned a situation as here in which the Plaintiffs were required to pay taxes that were the obligation of the Defendants." The idea is that the new case deals with "an illegal shifting of taxes mandated be paid by an employer, on behalf of an employee, through the abusive tactics of the WWE as implemented by the racketeering and other activities of its Chairman Vince McMahon, who controls the WWE individually and through his family trusts and straw men."

Did they even have contracts when Don Leo Jonathan was there?

Nope.

Does this case have any likelihood of succeeding?

If the other lawsuits that Kyros has steered are any indication, then no, probably not. However, he gets points for creativity, and while the complaint is full of factual errors, it's still much better written and researched that his past filings, Still, this seems like a long shot.