The Philadelphia Personal Injury Law Blog

Could the Players, Saints, and NFL be Liable For Bounty Injuries?

A video was released this week with recordings alleged to be of Gregg Williams imploring his players to target the opposing players' stars, specifically Michael Crabtree's outer-ACL, and allegedly hinting at bounties as rewards, The Associated Press reports. The allegations somehow rocked the NFL and led to the NFL covering their rear disciplining the New Orleans Saints and a number of their coaches.

Some have argued that the punishments were ridiculous. Football is a violent sport. Players target injured players all the time, if only to prevent them from scoring on them on the next drive. Long-term suspensions, massive fines, and lost draft picks punish the players and fans as much as they punish the coaches. The truth is, the penalties were harsh, at least in part, to reduce potential liability for the league.

Players inherently consent to being hit in the context of the game just by playing. However, consent to play recreational activities only covers injuries suffered in the normal course of the game. In theory, if a player could prove that they were injured due to an intentional hit that went beyond the normal bounds of football, like a horse-collar tackle or out-of-bounds hit, they might be able to sue the opposing player.

A player’s consent will cover normal hits, but does not give the other player the right to gratuitously strike him at will. So, if Will Smith had hit Michael Vick after he was clearly out of bounds, and Vick suffered a career-ending injury, he might actually have a case.

There is also the long-standing legal theory of respondeat superior. In addition to sounding like an excellent tequila brand, it allows the employer to be sued for acts of the employee in the course of the work itself. This means that the Saints could be sued for the actions of their player if he injured someone (outside of the normal game hits) during the time he was actively working for the Saints. Late hits, horse-collars, etc., would all be covered.

If Drew Brees attacked Vince Young in the parking lot with a lead pipe, that would not, as it was not in the course of employment.

How about the league itself? Well, they may have just covered themselves. Had the league known of an ongoing bounty system and not done anything about it, there may have been similar vicarious liability theories, like respondiat superior, or negligence theories on which they could have been sued. The lawyers’ fees alone would be massive, as would the PR nightmare. The NFL is already dealing with the ex-player concussion lawsuit. It did not need another court case on its hands.

As for the Philly Faithful, you have very little at stake in the matter. The last time the Eagles played the Saints was in 2009. There were no major injuries suffered in that game, but the Saints did win. The Eagles still made the playoffs.

The good news? Gregg Williams, the mastermind of the bounties, is suspended indefinitely, and any other bounty programs will likely disappear after this.

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