Days before the National Football League staged its prized possession, the Super Bowl, at NRG Stadium in Houston, controversy was brewing over the quality of the playing surface on which the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons played.
The controversy arose from an Oct. 14, 2016 lawsuit brought by former NFL linebacker Demeco Ryans over allegedly poor field conditions at NRG Stadium. Ryans has named the Texans, the NFL, the Harris County Convention and Sports Corporation, and StrathAyr Turf System Pty Ltd. as defendants in the litigation.
Ryans, who was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles playing a game against the Texans on Nov. 2, 2014, suffered a torn Achilles tendon that day, which allegedly ended his career.
“Defendants knew that using the patchwork modules caused continuity problems that include gaps, seams, indentations and lifted areas that can cause players to land awkwardly, trip, stumble, or have toes or feet caught in the turf,” the petition alleges. “Despite such knowledge, defendants continued to place NFL players in danger by using and improperly maintain the modules of which it consisted until their ultimate prize player, Jadeveon Clowney (Houston Texans’ top draft choice and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft), was injured. Then, and only then, was it time for defendants to fix the problem.”
StrathAyr wasted little time challenging the lawsuit, arguing in a Dec. 9, 2016 filing that the plaintiff failed to serve it in accordance with the Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters.
“Plaintiff alleges that service was made pursuant to the Hague Convention,” the company said. “However, despite plaintiff’s assertion, plaintiff has failed to adduce evidence demonstrating that service was made by letter of request to Australia’s Central Authority or any other designated Australian authority.”
The NFL has also gone on the offensive, arguing that the claim is preempted by the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players, pursuant to the federal Labor-Management Relations Act. Ryans’ attorneys, Robert E. Ammons and Sydney Meriwether of The Ammons Law Firm LLP in Houston, have countered that his premises liability claims are independent of the CBA, because they focus on the duty the Texans, as a lessee of the stadium, have to invitees to warn of and prevent dangerous conditions.
Current Litigation Follows Separate 2012 Lawsuit
Ryans is not the first to sue about an injury suffered on the field.
In 2012, Sports Litigation Alert reported that former Texans punter Brett Hartmann filed a lawsuit in the State District Court of Harris County, Texas against Harris County Convention & Sports Corporation, the owners of Reliant Stadium, and SMG, the management corporation that operates the stadium.
That complaint centered on injuries he suffered in a Dec. 4, 2011 game between the Texans and the Atlanta Falcons. Specifically, that complaint contained three causes of action against the owners of Reliant Stadium and the stadium’s management corporation: negligence, negligence under the Texas Tort Claims Act, and vicarious liability.
The complaint alleged that the stadium’s poor field conditions caused him to tear his ACL and fracture his fibula jeopardizing his career in the National Football League. During that game, Hartmann caught his foot in the seam of the grass turf while playing against the Atlanta Falcons. According to the complaint, the grass trays used to comprise the grass field in Reliant Stadium had uneven seams creating an unreasonable hazard. It was the uneven seams in the grass trays in which Hartmann caught his foot causing his fall and subsequent knee injuries. The complaint alleged that Hartmann’s injury was “severe and career-threatening” noting that knee injuries are rare among punters in the NFL.
The complaint noted that other stadiums in the National Football League use a single tray eliminating any risk that the players on the field will trip or injure themselves on seams. Hartmann alleged that he was an invitee to the stadium and that the defendants had a legal duty to eliminate any unreasonable hazards on the premises. In sum, Hartmann alleged that the defendants had a duty to maintain the field in a reasonably safe condition and their failure to do so caused his knee injuries.
That suit was settled out of court in April of 2015.
Where the Two Cases Differ
Eugene Egdorf of Houston-based Shrader & Associates gave his analysis to Sports Litigation Alert, contrasting the two cases.
“This case is different in many respects to Hartmann, some good and some not so much for Ryans. First, Ryans has sued the Texans (we could not because of worker’s compensation bar). The contracts at issue squarely place responsibility for the filed on SMG, not the Texans, so I believe that will be a difficult claim. Ryans has also sued the NFL. This claim has good factual appeal because the NFL by this time (though not when Hartmann was injured) was inspecting every field before every game and certifying it ready for play. However, the CBA is likely a solid defense for the NFL. Moreover, SMG will argue that the NFL certification relieves it of responsibility. While multiple targets can have its advantages, sometimes fighting all the fronts loses the war.
“On the positive side, as this occurred after Welker, Hartmann, and others, the Defendants certainly had notice of the problems with the turf at NRG Stadium. The turf looked particularly bad on the day of Ryans’ injury – in fact as I arrived at the stadium I texted a media colleague about the field condition specifying the area where Ryans sustained his injury. A wrong was certainly done, and with serious consequences. If anyone will be held accountable remains to be seen.”