Sports

Ex-wrestlers file suit against WWE for concealing concussion dangers

In a lawsuit filed Monday, WWE owner Vince McMahon is accused of putting profits above safety by requiring the performers to engage in dangerous maneuvers.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images/File 2014

In a lawsuit filed Monday, WWE owner Vince McMahon is accused of putting profits above safety by requiring the performers to engage in dangerous maneuvers.

More than 50 former professional wrestlers filed a lawsuit Monday against World Wrestling Entertainment, alleging the company concealed the dangers of repetitive head injuries that caused them debilitating neurological damage.

The suit, which was filed in US District Court in WWE’s home state of Connecticut, details the experiences of 53 ex-performers who allege a possible link between their head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease that has been diagnosed in many deceased athletes and at least two professional wrestlers.

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The complaint is similar to concussion cases brought by former players against the National Football League and National Hockey League. The suit against the NFL resulted in a settlement of nearly $1 billion, while the NHL case remains in litigation.

“WWE has done everything in its power to deny, conceal and deflect attention from acknowledging that this disease even exists in the community of retired wrestlers,’’ the wrestlers’ suit states.

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The plaintiffs include former WWE stars Jimmy Snuka (Superfly), Paul Orndorff (Mr. Wonderful), and Joe Laurinaitis (Road Warrior Animal).

In June, the 73-year-old Snuka, facing a charge that he murdered his girlfriend in 1983, was found incompetent to stand trial because of dementia.

The WWE lashed out at a Hingham lawyer, Konstantine Kyros, who is part of a six-member legal team that filed the suit. Kyros has helped file several previous lawsuits against WWE, including one in which a judge dismissed several elements of the case, including a class-action claim, but allowed two former wrestlers to pursue their allegation that WWE fraudulently failed to warn them they could suffer permanent brain damage from repetitive head injuries on the job.

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“This is another ridiculous attempt by the same attorney who has previously filed class-action lawsuits against WWE, both of which have been dismissed,’’ WWE said in a prepared statement. “A federal judge has already found that this lawyer made patently false allegations about WWE, and this is more of the same. We’re confident this lawsuit will suffer the same fate as his prior attempts and be dismissed.”

Kyros denied that a judge has ruled he made patently false allegations.

“It has been the studied practice of WWE through its counsel to denigrate the motives and integrity of anyone who is courageous enough to protest WWE’s self-serving choice to ignore the human toll and health crisis that its policies, fraud, and mistreatment of its workers have created,’’ Kyros said.

WWE has previously denied concealing medical information on concussions from performers and has claimed the company has outpaced sports organizations in implementing concussion management procedures.

The 214-page complaint accuses WWE and its owner, Vince McMahon, of putting profits above safety by requiring the performers to engage in maneuvers such as pile drivers, brainbusters, and neckbreakers to wow its crowds and market its products, despite the dangers. For decades, WWE performers in scripted matches struck each other in the head with metal chairs, until the company banned the practice in 2010.

Professional wrestling, despite its required athleticism, has been legally classified as entertainment rather than sport because of its choreographed nature and predetermined outcomes. Its performers often feign pain, but repetitive impacts to the head are all but inevitable in the ring and practice facilities.

WWE performers are treated as independent contractors and do not receive union representation, as do athletes in the major professional sports. The lawsuit contends WWE misclassified the performers as independent contractors and seeks damages for depriving them of employment rights, some of them health-related.

Unlike the major professional sports leagues, WWE is a publicly traded corporation.

Some of the 53 former performers allege their job-related brain injuries are so severe they require psychiatric care for symptoms that include suicidal thoughts, which have been associated with CTE.

Laurinaitis, 56, the lead plaintiff, once formed one of the most famous tag teams in WWE history. He alleges he performed hundreds of nights a year and suffered at least four major concussions but received little or no treatment from WWE’s ringside doctors.

Laurinaitis, whose son is a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, claims to suffer an array of cognitive problems, including memory loss.

Orndorff, 66, a member of the WWE Hall of Fame, performed in the 1980s with the likes of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. The lawsuit quotes Orndorff as saying he was “pressured to work injured” and alleges he routinely suffered head trauma that has caused numerous symptoms associated with CTE, including clinical depression, paranoia, confusion, and severe mood swings.

As for Snuka, one of his legendary antics as a WWE headliner occurred Oct. 17, 1983. As Superfly, Snuka leaped 15 feet from atop a steel cage at Madison Square Garden and crashed onto his opponent, who lay on his back on the canvas.

Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka (center) is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the WWE

Bill Olive/Getty Images/File 2009

Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka (center) is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the WWE

A year later, Snuka, a native of Fiji, was conked on the head with a coconut by Rowdy Roddy Piper during a promotional event. Snuka’s guardian, his wife, Carole, alleges he suffered neurological damage at the time and has since experienced serious cognitive and neuropsychological impairment from the cumulative head trauma.

In June, a judge in Lehigh County, Pa., accepted a forensic psychologist’s diagnosis that Snuka suffered from dementia so severe that he was unaware he had been charged with homicide, according to The Morning Call of Allentown. The judge ordered him to be evaluated every six months.

The lawsuit alleges WWE was aware of the consequences of brain injuries for years but failed to warn its performers and take other precautionary measures before it implemented a concussion management program in 2008. In 1995, the suit says, WWE televised a scripted event describing the dangers of post-concussion syndrome and cited comparisons to football players and boxers.

“While the WWE knew for decades of the harmful effects of sub-concussive and concussive injuries on a wrestler’s brain, it actively concealed these facts from trainers, wrestlers, and the public,’’ the suit states.

The risks of traumatic brain injuries gripped professional wrestling in 2007, after WWE star Chris Benoit killed his wife, his 7-year-old son, and himself. Chris Nowinski, one of Benoit’s wrestling colleagues, said Benoit told him he had experienced “more [concussions] than I can count.’’

Nowinski, who had retired from WWE in 2003 because of head injuries, later created a concussion research foundation he would affiliate with Boston University. He obtained Benoit’s brain for an autopsy, and his then-partner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, diagnosed Benoit with severe CTE, the first confirmation of the disease in a WWE performer.

Omalu later diagnosed professional wrestler Andrew “Test’’ Martin with CTE. He currently is examining the brains of three deceased wrestlers, including Brian Knighton (Axl Rotten), whose estate is suing WWE with the other 52 plaintiffs.

As part of the 17-count complaint, the former wrestlers criticize the relationship between Nowinski’s Concussion Legacy Foundation and WWE, which has pledged $2.7 million to the BU-affiliated nonprofit. They cite a Globe report that Nowinski and his foundation have not obtained the brain of a wrestler for CTE research since WWE began donating to the nonprofit.

Nowinski successfully fought a subpoena to testify in the lawsuit against WWE brought by the two former performers who had been cleared by a judge to pursue their claim that the company fraudulently failed to warn them about the dangers of head injuries on the job.

Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.
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