Part beauty queen, part ring performer, Ashley Massaro was sent to Kuwait in 2006 by World Wrestling Entertainment to visit American troops. During the trip, as a civil war raged in neighboring Iraq, Massaro — then known as Ashley, a WWE diva — was sexually assaulted at a US military base, she alleges in a lawsuit against the WWE.
Massaro, who became a Playboy cover girl and “Survivor: China’’ contestant during her WWE tenure, says she was examined by a company physician after she returned from Kuwait. She alleges the doctor reported the incident to WWE executives, who met with her “to apologize for their negligence, but [they] persuaded her that it would be best not to report it to appropriate authorities.’’
The allegation is one of several health and safety complaints Massaro made against the WWE Nov. 9, as she and seven additional former professional wrestlers joined 52 others who are suing the billion-dollar company. They allege the WWE concealed the dangers of repetitive head injuries that have caused them neurological damage.
Also notable among the new plaintiffs is the family of Jon Rechner (Balls Mahoney), who died in April of a heart attack at 44 and recently was diagnosed in a postmortem autopsy with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative neurological disease caused by head injuries that has been diagnosed in many deceased athletes.
Rechner was the third professional wrestler to be diagnosed with CTE and is the first, through his family, to sue the WWE for allegedly contributing to his death.
A day after Rechner and Massaro joined the case, a federal court in Connecticut dismissed two wrongful death suits against the WWE by the estates of performers who were alleged to have died of occupational head injuries.
US District Judge Vanessa Bryant ruled that relatives of Nelson Frazier, who performed as Viscera, and Matthew Osborne, best known as Doink the Clown, failed to show their deaths were linked to CTE. Bryant had previously dismissed similar claims against the WWE.
In her decision, the judge rejected a request by the WWE to sanction lawyers for the former wrestlers, particularly Hingham-based Konstantine Kyros, for alleged improper conduct. However, Bryant harshly criticized Kyros, stating he has made false and misleading statements and has raised baseless allegations, which she described as “highly unprofessional.’’
She warned Kyros and his legal team to adhere to professional court standards or risk future sanctions. Kyros is part of the legal team representing Massaro and the other 59 plaintiffs in the lawsuit before Bryant.
In Massaro’s case, the former WWE star alleges she suffered several concussions, including one that rendered her unconscious for five minutes in the ring, while she performed for the company from 2005 to 2008. Massaro says she received no care after she was knocked out and alleges she was told to “shake it off.’’
Massaro, now 37 and living on Long Island, says she has undergone debilitating behavioral changes since she left the WWE, including developing a drug addiction, which the company helped her treat in 2010.
She alleges she suffers depression, anxiety, memory loss, and migraine headaches, all of which have been associated with CTE, a disease that can only be diagnosed through a postmortem autopsy.
The physical toll from her WWE career, Massaro alleges, also included a hairline fracture of her spine, two herniated disks, and an ankle fracture that required the insertion of a five-inch metal plate to repair.
A knuckle on her right hand also was shattered. Massaro asserts that WWE chief executive Vince McMahon ordered a backstage crew to saw the cast off her hand several weeks before it was scheduled to be removed so she could perform in an event that night.
WWE attorney Jerry McDevitt, asked to comment on Massaro’s allegations, did not directly address them. Instead, he cited the WWE’s motion for sanctions against Kyros and the judge’s opinion on the motion, which included her sharp rebuke of Kyros.
The WWE is expected to fully address the allegations by Massaro and the other new plaintiffs when it files a motion to dismiss the case.
The WWE classifies its performers as independent contractors rather than employees, which means the athletes do not enjoy union protection and many state and federal employee rights. Massaro alleges in her lawsuit that the WWE requires performers to “sign your life away.’’
The other retired performers who joined the federal case include a former WWE star, Perry Satullo, known as Perry Saturn, who learned to wrestle at the late Killer Kowalski’s gym in Malden in the late 1980s. A decade later, Satullo won a world tag team title with Chris Benoit, who in 2007 became the first professional wrestler to be diagnosed with CTE. The findings came after Benoit killed his wife, his 7-year-old son, and himself.
As for Satullo, he developed a drug addiction in his 30s and spiraled into homelessness for several years. Now 50, he alleges he is suffering from multiple symptoms of repetitive traumatic brain injuries and is undergoing neurological care.
To date, the WWE has not lost a case involving a performer’s alleged head injuries. The lawsuits against the company are similar to those filed against the National Football League and National Hockey League.
The NFL has reached a $1 billion settlement with former players who had possible brain damage. The NHL case is still in litigation.
Massaro joined the WWE by beating thousands of contestants, including eight finalists, in the company’s 2005 competition for a new diva. She had also been crowned Miss Hawaiian Tropic in the United States and Canada.
Massaro alleges that when she became a WWE performer she had no prior wrestling experience.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.