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A look at the idea of a class action concussion lawsuit against WWE

I'm bumping this post up because it went up last night not long before Raw and got lost in the post-show parade of posts.

As Keith noted
, our friend Irv Muchnick put up an interesting piece of information in a post that looks at Keith's post from yesterday about how the NFL concussion lawsuit could relate to WWE (as well as the thread I started in the comments section about potential plaintiffs).  In Irv's post, he quotes Chris Benoit's father Michael, who he spoke to today and asked if he had read what Keith wrote yesterday:

"I did," Benoit père said. "I am watching the NFL concussion lawsuit and I am considering organizing a class action lawsuit against the WWE."

A couple things to keep in mind before I cover everything else:

  • Just because Michael Benoit is considering suing WWE doesn't mean that the suit would be about the murders or even Chris's suicide, especially since he's considering a class action suit along the lines of the one filed against the NFL.  It's about the pattern of behavior by WWE as far as forcing wrestlers back into the ring too soon, dismissing studies about head trauma, etc.
  • Someone with a concussion is medically considered to not be of their right mind.  For example, there's this recent story of an uninsured man who was taken to a hospital by ambulance against his will after a motorcycle accident.  He protested going to the hospital because of his lack of health insurance and was only able to refuse treatment once he arrived at the hospital.  In most cases, you can do refuse the ambulance ride.  When you have a head injury (like he did), are intoxicated, or are having a diabetic emergency, the first responders are required to make that decision for you.  Otherwise, it's abandonment and they can be held liable later on.

Make sure to read the parts of the NFL suit quoted in the Courthouse News Service article about it so you can get an idea of what the main points of the suit are and how it could relate to WWE.  The short version is that they NFL failed to put in medically safe concussion rules in place long after the risks were known and made a concerted effort to bash the science behind various studies into head trauma.  They formed a "brain injury committee" to fight the research and even conducted their own study where they said that essentially said there was nothing to worry about because "the overwhelming majority of players with concussions" returned to football activity in less than a week.  Yes, really.  The suit says that "The NFL-funded study is completely devoid of logic and science."

It's not that hard to see how a similar suit could apply to WWE.  Obviously, they've tried to discredit the examination of Chris Benoit's brain and the doctor who did the examination, similar to the NFL. The only wrestler other than Chris Benoit to have his brain examined post-mortem was Andrew "Test" Martin.  He spent the vast majority of his career in WWE and worked what would generally be considered a safe style.  His brain was damaged as severely as Benoit's.  In addition to his drug problems worsening, those close to him have said he was starting to act like someone with bipolar disorder.

Even if you take the stunts with the highest risk of head injury (chair shots to the head being the most obvious), concussions can easily happen all the time in pro wrestling.  There can be accidents from blown spots.  The standard bumping style used outside of Mexico causes a whiplash motion that can easily cause a concussion.  Remember, a concussion is the brain slamming into the skull.  It doesn't require the head hitting anything.  Whiplash can easily suffice.

This ties into something unique to WWE: Wrestlers in the heel role are told to bump for every punch thrown by the babyface.  If they don't, they risk punishment for "not knowing how to work."

More details after the jump, including details about the WWE heel bumping style, flat-back bumps in general, and an example of how we know WWE handled a concussion in the past, among some other notes.

Chris Jericho goes into this in detail in his second and most recent book, "Undisputed."  Nobody told him to do this until he had already been branded an overrated greenhorn who couldn't work, leading to him being dressed down by Vince McMahon in a diatribe that's quoted on the back cover and in my linked review.

In addition, Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer noted several years ago that this quirk of the WWE style was worsening Eddy Guerrero's various issues in the last year or so before his death.  As most of you probably know, Eddy Guerrero was a drug addict.  WWE pushed after his death that he was "clean" when he died.  By wrestling standards, maybe.  It doesn't appear he was taking anything to get high after he was fired by WWE in 2001 for a relapse that led to a car accident, but he was obviously using various bodybuilding drugs.

What wasn't obvious was that he was taking narcotic painkillers.  It was seemingly out of necessity.  His chiropractor told him that his back was so damaged it was a miracle that he could walk.  For much of the last year of his life, he was a heel.  He was hitting his peak as an overall performer and loved his character, but there was one thing he hated about being a heel.  He had to take a lot more bumps on a back that by all logic shouldn't have been holding him up and was causing him such extreme pain that only narotics would give him any relief.

The whiplash -> concussions topic is one that isn't discussed enough.  I see it as the most realistic explanation for Martin's level of brain damage.  Benoit was a 22 year pro who used the diving headbutt as a trademark move without using his hands to protect his head and neck to any degree, was known for a hard hitting style that regularly included hard standing headbutts and big bumps, and was maybe the only wrestler to take multiple chairshots to the back of the head.  Martin was in the business for a decade or so.  Most of that time was spent in WWE, and much of that time was spent as a heel.  He wasn't what anyone would consider a risk taker in the ring, yet he had brain damage at the same level of a wrestler who took a lot more risks and had a much longer career.

I see the bumping style as something that could easily be changed to enhance wrestlers' long-term health.  At least WWE could stop requiring heels to bump off every punch.  Figure Four Weekly editor and sometimes independent wrestler Bryan Alvarez has argued to me that he doesn't see it as a major cause of head injuries, figuring that there would be a lot more wrestlers with clear impairment.  I don't really see the merit to that.  The bumping style is too harsh anyway (those who don't bump flat, like Ric Flair, Diamond Dallas Page, and many Luchadores, have been able to wrestle at a higher level past middle age than most wrestlers), and I don't see another reason why Andrew Martin would have such severe brain damage.

As far as how WWE reacted to wrestlers suffering concussions, we don't know a lot.  One startling story we do know happens to involve Chris Benoit.  On the December 6, 2004 edition of Monday Night Raw, he teamed with Chris Jericho against Triple H and Batista.  Jack Doan was the referee.  The finish involved Triple H going nuts with a chair for a disqualification.  The video can be seen on DailyMotion, and the relevant portion starts at about 4:55.  Here's how it went down:

  • Triple H nails Benoit in the back of the head with one of the most brutal shots you'll ever see.  Benoit appears to go limp as soon as the blow hits.  As Chris Nowinski told the New York Times days after Benoit's death, he was one of the few wrestlers to take chairshots to the back of the head, and it was "stupid" of him to do so.
  • Next, Triple H nails Jack Doan with a head shot.  Doan put his hand up in front of his head to try to deflect the damage, but it was beyond pointless, as Triple H nailed him hard on top of the head instead of on the forehead.
  • Then, Batista held up Jericho, who ducked.  This chairshot was well telegraphed and Batista's hand was hit far away from his head.
  • Finally, Jericho gets nailed but it appears that it hit at an angle where his hand was high enough to take all the damage, as he immediately clutched his wrist in lieu of selling unconsciousness or actually getting knocked out.

Triple H's reputation was being one of the safest wrestlers in the company, but he was beyond reckless in this match.  Benoit and Doan were knocked unconscious, and after coming to, Benoit was unable to stand for several minutes.  He was back to work four days later at the next show on the tour.  The chairshot incident was brought up in a few places when WWE claimed in 2007 that they had no records of Benoit suffering a concussion.  They eventually changed course and said they found a few records, but no dates were made public.

Regardless of whether or not they kept records, they had no concussion policy at the time and it's pretty obvious that Benoit had no business working again that week.  Hell, he shouldn't have even gotten on an airplane, as flying is discouraged after suffering a concussion.  To me, it seems unlikely that their handling of Benoit's concussion was an isolated incident.

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