For many, many years now, it’s been an open “secret” that many WWE “Superstars” die young and die rough. Time after time, story after story, headline after headline, the song remains the same. The relatively young death of a tough person who lived a hard life. Respect from colleagues, regret from the company, and a side of “we didn’t know at the time.” This latter sentiment helped, in part, the WWE recently to win a legal case after a federal appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, which had been filed by 50 former professional wrestlers.
In the lawsuit, these former “Superstars,” mostly big names from the 80s and 90s, claimed that World Wrestling Entertainment “failed to protect them from repeated head injuries,” some of which included concussions, which then led to long-term brain damage.
The case began more than two years ago, when plaintiffs, including wrestling luminaries such as Jimmy Snuka, Joseph Laurinaitis, Paul Orndorff, and Harry Fujiwara, along with 46 other former wrestling colleagues, sued the WWE. A federal judge threw out that lawsuit in Connecticut in 2018. The plaintiffs appealed, and a court has now dismissed the case in the US Circuit Court of Appeals.
The lawsuit argued that WWE executives, including Chairman Vince McMahon, “knew the risks of head injuries” but failed to adequately warn the wrestlers of the severity of the risk. In dismissing the case, US District Judge Vanessa Bryant concluded that there was “no evidence” that WWE executives or decision-makers knew that concussions or blows to the head could cause serious long-term brain injuries such as CTE.
The attorney for the plaintiff was bluntly critical of the recent court decision: “(This decision) is utterly devoid of any original reasoning or engagement with the legal issue raised… In its conclusory assertions, the injured wrestlers find no justice having been literally denied a day in court…”
Speaking to the Associated Press, the plaintiff’s attorney added, “Per this mandate, the wrestlers have no rights, no rights to help from WW for CTE and head injuries, no rights as misclassified employees, no rights to a jury, and no right to even appeal…”
While WWE has won in court on this issue in multiple lawsuits, the jury is out if the company will win in the court of public opinion. The topic of head injury, especially CTE, has become a serious, ongoing discussion in many sports at every level. It’s possible that, with headlines around cases such as this one, attention currently focused primarily on football and hockey may shift to wrestling.
If and when that day comes, McMahon and the company will need to have a message prepared that protects the brand’s image as good, fun, all-American entertainment.