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Law School Case Brief

Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc. - 435 F. Supp. 352 (D. Colo. 1977)

Rule:

Outrageous conduct has been the basis for liability where severe emotional distress resulted from some behavior that was considered to be so extraordinary and so far from societal norms as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable. 

Facts:

Plaintiff football player Dale Hackbart filed a complaint alleging negligence and reckless misconduct against defendants Cincinnati Bengals Football Club, Inc. and opposing football player Charles Clark. Plaintiff alleged he sustained injuries during an emotional outburst by defendant Clark during a professional football game.

Issue:

In an action for negligence and reckless misconduct against defendants professional football team and opposing player, did plaintiff football player assume the risk of such injury, thus denying him recovery of damages?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The United States District Court entered judgment in favor of defendants Cincinnati Bengals and Clark. The Court considered plaintiff Hackbart's claim in the context of football as a commercial enterprise. Here, the question was: what would a professional football player in the plaintiff's circumstances reasonably expect to encounter in a professional contest? The Court found that even if Clark breached a duty owed by striking Hackbart, the latter assumed the risk of such an injury due to the level of violence and the frequency of emotional outbursts in the league. Hackbart was not a beneficiary of the standard player contract for the purposes of imposing liability because that would require a strained interpretation of the contract. Finding no claim for emotional distress, the Court held that the outrageous conduct doctrine was inapplicable to this case because Hackbart did not suffer the necessary emotional distress, and Clark's action was not outside applicable norms of NFL football. Cincinnati Bengals were not liable because Clark’s actions were not outside what was expected in the league.

The Court also discussed the application of tort principles to professional football, as a question of social policy. The case raised the larger question of whether playing field action in the business of professional football should become a subject for the business of the courts. For example, the question of causation would be extremely difficult in view of the frequency of forceful collisions. Due to the complex issues, any governmental involvement in the league would have to be through legislation.

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