A Kansas judge has ruled that the Hart family's settlement with Lewmar, the company which built the shackle that allegedly came loose, causing Owen Hart to fall to his death, was obtained fraudulently. this ruling opens the way for the WWE to pursue contribution and indemnity from Lewmar in relation to the $18 million settlement with the Hart family.
Settlement questioned Evidence of collusion in suit over wrestler Hart's death: judge
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - A settlement in the death of Canadian pro wrestler Owen Hart showed "overwhelming evidence" of having been reached fraudulently, a judge ruled. In an order issued Friday, judge Douglas E. Long Jr. directed particularly harsh language at one of Kansas City's most prominent personal-injury law firms. The same firm, Robb & Robb, represented the family of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan in a lawsuit over the plane crash that killed him, his son Randy, and Carnahan aide Chris Sifford.
On Friday, Long said he found evidence that Hart's family, the law firm or both engaged in fraud and collusion by releasing a British firm from the family's lawsuit.
Gary Robb, one of the partners in the law firm, denied any wrongdoing.
Hart, 34, from Calgary, died May 23, 1999, when his safety harness unbuckled prematurely while he was being lowered into the ring at Kemper Arena in Kansas City.
Although World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. - formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation - agreed in November 2000 to pay Hart's family $18 million US to settle the lawsuit, the case has dragged on as the WWE sought reimbursement from some of the other original defendants.
At issue is the Hart family's dismissal from the case of defendant Lewmar Inc., which made the trigger-latch shackle whose premature release led to Hart's fall and death.
The judge's order allows the WWE to sue Lewmar for reimbursement of some or all of the settlement amount. The case has been set for trial in September.
On Tuesday, Gary Robb defended the Hart family's dismissal of Lewmar from the case, saying the family believed that the WWE was solely responsible for the accident.
"Bear in mind that the decision to settle solely belongs to the client, and we support that decision ...," Robb said. "Mrs. Hart felt that Lewmar wasn't at fault even one per cent."
Hart's family filed suit against 13 defendants - including the WWE, the city of Kansas City and Lewmar - 13 weeks after Hart's death. The 118-page lawsuit alleged that the stunt was dangerous and poorly planned, and that the harness system was defective. The lawsuit sought unspecified damages in the tens of millions of dollars.
About seven months before it settled with the WWE, the Hart family settled with Lewmar and dismissed it from the case. The settlement with Lewmar called for a mutual release of claims but no payment of money by Lewmar, although the WWE noted that Lewmar had nearly $50 million in liability insurance coverage.
That settlement prompted a protest from the WWE, which was concerned that the settlement would bar the WWE from seeking reimbursement from Lewmar.
Missouri law prevents a defendant from seeking reimbursement from a co-defendant if the co-defendant reaches a good-faith settlement with the plaintiffs.
Long's order followed an evidentiary hearing in mid-December on that issue. After finding that "significant evidence existed at the time of the settlement tending to establish liability on the part of Lewmar," Long concluded that a jury "more likely than not," would have apportioned to Lewmar "a significant amount of fault for Owen Hart's death."
Long's four-page order went on to say that "substantial evidence exists" that "plaintiffs' counsel was motivated by a desire to prevent facts concerning Lewmar's liability for this accident from coming to light in an effort to construct a punitive damages claim against WWE."
In theory at least, a punitive damage award against the WWE could have exceeded $50 million.
Robb said neither he nor the Hart family were parties to the December hearing, "so we don't know what evidence was or wasn't presented."
But he said that even if Lewmar had $1 billion in insurance coverage, Hart's widow, Martha, "wasn't going to take a nickel because she believed the WWE was solely responsible."
"I think the evidence that Mrs. Hart relied on to support her decision was more than sufficient, and that's the bottom line," Robb said.
Lawyers for the WWE reacted strongly to Long's order. One of them, Jerry McDevitt, said the order contained "some of the strongest statements I've ever seen in my 22 years of practice about the manner in which this case was handled."
Kansas City lawyer Paul Wickens, who represents Lewmar, declined comment.
The city of Kansas City, which owns Kemper Arena, was dismissed from the case as part of the WWE's settlement with the Hart family. The city did not pay any money.