Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ex-Wrestlers Sue WWE Over Brain Injuries

(CN) - Dozens of retired World Wrestling Entertainment wrestlers are suing Vince McMahon and his company over the concussions they claim to have suffered from decades of bumps in the ring.

Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Joe "Road Warrior Animal" Laurinaitis and 51 other performers sued their former employer in Connecticut Federal Court on Monday for racketeering, misclassifying them as independent contractors, and hiding the hazards of their job.

They claimed to suffer Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and other maladies from the "repetitive head trauma" of performing their wrestling moves "correctly."

"WWE wrestling matches, unlike other contact sports, involve very specific moves that are scripted, controlled, directed and choreographed by WWE," the plaintiffs stated. "As such, the moves that resulted in Named Plaintiffs' head injuries were the direct result of the WWE's actions."

Also, they claimed that WWE refused to provide them with health insurance and publicly questioned the CTE diagnoses in the deaths of Chris Benoit and Andrew "Test" Martin.

WWE responded to the suit by calling it "ridiculous."

The list of plaintiffs is a who's who of wrestling's past stars, including "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, King Kong Bundy, Ahmed Johnson and Ken Patera.

Demolition members Bill "Ax" Eadie and Barry "Smash" Darsow joined forces again in the lawsuit, as did The Powers of Pain (Terry "Warlord" Szopinski and Sione "Barbarian" Vailahi).

Dave and Earl Hebner, the identical twin referees involved in Hulk Hogan's controversial WWE title loss in 1988, are also among the plaintiffs.

Even some "enhancement talent," who did the job of losing matches on television, joined the lawsuit. These names include Don Driggers and "Beef Stew" Lou Marconi.

The wrestlers stated that WWE "deliberately ignored and actively concealed" information that could help them deal with their injuries from "diseases such as CTE that can result in suicide, drug abuse and violent behavior."

"WWE placed corporate gain over its wrestlers' health, safety, and financial security, choosing to leave the Plaintiffs severely injured and with no recourse to treat their damaged minds and bodies," the plaintiffs said.

They included the following quote from CTE expert Dr. Bennett Omalu, who Will Smith portrayed in the 2015 movie Concussion: "The deleterious effects of repeated concussions to brain cells and nerve fibers are additive and cumulative."

WWE instituted a Wellness Policy in 2006, but the plaintiffs said it was "too little too late" for them and "takes no account of former wrestlers at all."

The plaintiffs acknowledged that WWE has donated more than $2 million to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which was founded by former wrestler Chris "Harvard" Nowinski.

However, they stated that "no wrestler's brain has been studied by CLF since the WWE donated to the organization."

According to the plaintiffs, WWE was aware of the effects of concussions in 1995, when it scripted a story of Shawn Michaels collapsing in the ring after getting kicked in the head by Owen Hart.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs told stories of their battles in the ring and their aftereffects.

Johnny "The Bull" Hugger said he was knocked out during a match in 2002 but was told by a WWE doctor to "shake it off."

"If you spoke up about injuries, you would be labeled 'injury prone' and lose your spot," said Patera, a former Olympic weightlifter.


Snuka referenced the infamous incident in which "Rowdy" Roddy Piper smashed him in the head with a coconut on a "Piper's Pit" TV segment.

Orndorff stated that he "gets easily confused, is clinically depressed, paranoid, repeats himself constantly and has severe mood swings."

Ahmed Johnson (real name: Tony Norris) was knocked out in 1996 when Jeff Jarrett jumped off the top rope and smashed a guitar over his head.

Butch "The Natural" Reed said he was sometimes "kicked so hard you were paralyzed for a few seconds" but added that he "needed to be in the ring; otherwise there was no payday."

"Princess" Victoria Otis stated that she suffered two cracked vertebrae in her neck in 1984, but a WWE official told her to "take a break" and "see how things went."

The plaintiffs range in age from 34-year-old Marc "Mohammed Hassan" Copani to 84-year-old Don Leo Jonathan, a veteran of battles against Andre the Giant.

Another plaintiff, former Extreme Championship Wrestling star Axl Rotten, died earlier this year at the age of 44. His estate is representing him in the lawsuit. Omalu is analyzing Rotten's brain tissue, according to the 214-page lawsuit.

"The wrestlers that perform regularly for WWE, at least since the early 1990s, are required to sign 'booking contracts' that seek to strip them of any rights they may have to workers' compensation (and other protected statutory rights) by fraudulently classifying them as 'independent contractors,'" the plaintiffs alleged.

They also described the physical toll caused by taking basic falls, or "bumps," in the ring, as well as more elaborate moves such as the bodyslam, piledriver, DDT and brainbuster.

The wrestlers sued for a declaration that WWE misclassified them as "independent contractors with few if any rights."

George "The One Man Gang" Gray asserted that he had to "keep his mouth shut" when he was ordered to portray the "racially stereotypical" gimmick of Akeem the African Dream, even though Gray is white.

Copani stated that although he is Italian, he was cast as the Arabic character Mohammad Hassan. After the London terrorist bombing in 2005, his gimmick was scrapped as "politically incorrect," he stated.

Also, the wrestlers sued for declarations that WWE should have known that their jobs would expose them to traumatic head injuries and that the wrestlers' contracts were "unconscionable."

They also accused McMahon of "a pattern of racketeering activity, which has continued for well over two decades" and has deprived them of "money and property amounting collectively to millions of dollars" as a result of their being treated as independent contractors.

In addition, the wrestlers sued WWE for fraudulent concealment, the wrongful death of Rotten, negligent misrepresentation, and violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act., the National Labor Relations Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

They also sought an injunction to create a "a Court-supervised, WWE-funded medical monitoring program, which would facilitate the diagnosis and adequate treatment of Plaintiffs for neurodegenerative disorder or disease."

Former wrestler Billy Jack Haynes filed a similar lawsuit in 2014. So did Michelle James, the mother of Matt "Doink the Clown" Osborne, last year. Osborne died of a drug overdose in 2013 at the age of 57.

The wrestlers are being represented by attorney Brenden Leydon of the Tooher Wocl & Leydon law firm of Stamford, Conn.

WWE slammed Leydon in a statement, according to a Bloomberg News report.

"This is another ridiculous attempt by the same attorney who has previously filed class action lawsuits against WWE, both of which have been dismissed," the company asserted. "A federal judge has already found that this lawyer made patently false allegations about WWE, and this is more of the same."

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.