By Jon Heshka
The estate of MMA fighter and boxer Tim Hague filed a $5.4 million CDN ($4.1 million USD) wrongful death lawsuit in the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta on June 7, 2019. Hague suffered a brain hemorrhage on June 16, 2017 after he was knocked out by Adam Braidwood during a boxing match. Hague was knocked down three times in the first round before being knocked out in the second round. After the knockout, Hague walked to his dressing and shortly afterwards lapsed into a coma. He died two days later.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the City of Edmonton (“City”), Edmonton Combative Sports Commission (“ECSC”), Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (“EEDC”), Pat Reid (the ECSC’s Executive Director), Len Koivisto (the referee), two ringside doctors, and others. The statement of claim alleges all defendants were negligent, or alternatively grossly negligent and that the City, ECSC, Reid and the doctors breached their fiduciary duty to Hague.
Hague, 34, was 6-4 and 265 pounds with a 1-3 record as a boxer and a 21-13 record in MMA. Eight of the 13 losses were due to knockouts. He also worked as a fourth-grade teacher. Braidwood was a former professional football player who stood 6-4, weighed 250 pounds and had a 7-1 boxing record with six knockouts.
The lawsuit claims that the City, ECSC, EEDC and Reid failed to collect Hague’s appropriate medical information, failed to adequately consider Hague’s previous fight history, and failed to properly investigate Hague’s pre-fight medical condition. The Edmonton Combative Sports Commission is responsible for regulating the licensing, conduct, qualifications and contests of combative sports including MMA and boxing.
It can be reasonably argued that Hague’s past was not properly considered and that rules designed to protect fighters were not adhered to in advance of the fight. The statement of claim is mostly silent on the details. Independent research has gleaned much of what follows below.
However, ECSC rules stated (they have since been updated) a boxer who loses three times by knockout or technical knockout from blows to the head in a year is subject to a medical suspension of not less than one year and a boxer who loses two times due to knockouts or technical knockouts in six months is suspended for at least 180 days. The ECSC imposed a suspension of not less than 90 days for an MMA fighter who loses three times by knockout or technical knockout from blows to the head. The rules distinguish boxers and MMA fighters and do not contemplate the same person fighting in both sports.
There were instances where the ECSC appears to have suspended Hague fewer days than required thereby permitting him to fight — and lose — repeatedly. Hague was knocked out in an unsanctioned MMA fight in July 2016, lost by unanimous decision in September 2016, lost by technical knockout in December 2016 and lost by technical knockout in a hybrid boxing/MMA bout in April 2017. The records are unclear if the technical knockouts were caused by blows to the head.
Per ECSC Policy #5 (Contestants and Officials Involved in Unsanctioned Events), Hague’s loss in July 2016 should have triggered an automatic 90-day medical risk suspension. Had that 90-day suspension been issued, he would have been ineligible to fight in the September boxing match that he lost by decision. Per ECSC Policy #9, Hague’s loss in the December 2016 boxing match should have triggered a 180-day minimum medical suspension if the technical knockout was caused by blows to the head. The records do not indicate the reason for the technical knockout. Had that 180-day suspension been issued, he wouldn’t have been able to compete in the April 2017 fight.
The lawsuit claims that the defendants failed in their duty to properly advise Hague of the risks of brain injury, in particular chronic traumatic encephalopathy, associated with combative sports. Hague’s autopsy showed that he had early stage CTE.
The claim concerning failure to warn about CTE is dissimilar to the now 4 ½-year old $1 billion NFL concussion settlement. The whole point of boxing and MMA is to inflict injury upon the opponent whereas in football hits to the head are incidental to the game. Blows to the head in boxing are the main goal, not an ancillary one, and blows powerful enough to render the opponent unconscious are venerated as a knockout. The NFL lawsuit dealt with allegations of fraudulent concealment, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, negligence, failure to warn, and more. The Hague lawsuit simply claims all defendants didn’t take reasonable care for his safety and that he didn’t know about the risks.
The ECSC has adopted the Unified Rules of Boxing approved by the Association of Boxing Commissions (“ABC”). The ABC is unequivocal in its stance concerning the risks involved with boxing. A sample contract on its website states “the Boxer understands that by participating in a contest or exhibition of boxing, that the Boxer is engaged in an abnormally dangerous activity. The Boxer further understands that his participation subjects the Boxer to a risk of severe injury or death.”
In light of the extent to which concussions have been in the public spotlight and the ABC’s acknowledgement of boxing’s inherent risks, it will likely be difficult to show that Hague didn’t know about the risks of brain injury associated with boxing.
The lawsuit also claims that it was negligent or grossly negligent to pit Hague against Braidwood considering their respective records and Hague’s medical history. The mismatch claim is novel; it isn’t uncommon for fighters of disparate ability to be opponents. While Hague had a 1-3 boxing record, he was 21-13 in the cage and was as big as Braidwood. On its face, the pairing of these fighters appears reasonable.
The claim doesn’t detail how Hague’s medical history should have been taken into account in the selection of Braidwood as an opponent.
Hague’s case will likely center on whether the ECSC permitted Hague to fight sooner than he should have, in breach of its own rules, thereby allowing Hague to suffer more hits to the head with its resultant brain damage — the cumulative effect of which it would be argued caused or contributed to his death.
It will be a hard row to hoe to prove that Hague was unaware of the risks of injury involved with boxing and that the ECSC caused Hague’s death by not imposing the required suspensions and allowing him to fight too soon.
Statements of defense have not yet been filed.
Jon Heshka, a former Associate Dean of Law, is a professor in both the law school and adventure studies department at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia.