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The Kansas City Star - June 16, 1999

Lawsuit Filed Over Death of Wrestler at Kemper

Christine Vendel
The Kansas City Star
6/16/1999

The harness that suspended Owen Hart was unsafe and inadequate to hold the 230-pound professional wrestler who fell to his death last month, a lawsuit filed Tuesday alleged.

Hart’s family named 13 defendants – including the World Wrestling Federation and the city of Kansas City – in the wrongful death lawsuit, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court. The lawsuit, which seeks an undetermined amount of money, stemmed from the May 23 accident that killed Hart at Kemper Arena.

Hart, 34, of Calgary, Alberta, was supposed to enter the ring from a catwalk 78 feet above the ring. As he dangled in mid-air, waiting for his cue, a quick-release mechanism on his vest opened prematurely, dropping him to his death, said police who investigated the accident.

The lawsuit alleged that the stunt was dangerous and poorly planned. In particular, the lawsuit alleged that the harness system was defective.

“Our legal and factual allegation is that Owen Hart died because this makeshift contraption was totally inadequate for this intended purpose,” family attorney Gary Robb said at a news conference. He said the mechanism used to support Hart was intended to rig sailboats.

Robb said Hart could have moved his shoulder and triggered the harness’ quick release mechanism on his vest. He said it took only six pounds of pressure to trigger the mechanism. In comparison, it takes eight pounds of pressure to pull the trigger of a Kansas City police officer’s handgun, according to police.

The 118-page lawsuit lists 46 separate counts against the defendants, who include the WWF; Vince McMahon, the WWF’s chairman; and the city, as owner of Kemper Arena.

The city is covered by an insurance policy paid for by the WWF. All arena Lessees are required to buy liability insurance to protect the city, said William LaMette, director of convention centers. City officials declined to comment further.

Other defendants in the lawsuit include WWF’s parent company, Titan Sports, four companies that manufactured or sold the harness – and – cable system and four riggers who set up the stunt. Three riggers were on the catwalk with Hart before he fell. The role of the fourth rigger was not clear.

Most of the defendants contacted Tuesday were not aware that they had been named in the lawsuit. Some declined to comment; others did not return telephone calls.

Besides the lawsuit, police are investigating whether criminal acts contributed to Hart’s death. Their investigation is focused on the appropriateness of the equipment used by Hart, to see whether any one was criminally negligent.

WWF spokesman Jim Byrne said his company had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

“It’s difficult to respond to a lawsuit that hasn’t been seen yet,” he said. “The police investigation is still ongoing, so it would seem the lawsuit is precipitous.”

Byrne declined to discuss the equipment used by Hart. He said Hart had performed the stunt a few times before.

The lawsuit claimed precautions were missing, such as a safety net, safety harness, backup cables or a safety lock on the release mechanism. Owen Hart also was not properly trained, the lawsuit said. “What happened to Owen Hart was absolutely preventable,” said Pamela Fischer, a family attorney from Canada.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Hart’s widow, Martha Hart; their two children, ages 7 and 3; and Owen Hart’s parents, all of Calgary.

Hart’s widow, Martha Hart, said she decided to file the lawsuit to hold accountable those responsible for her husband’s death and to protect other wrestlers from unsafe conditions.

“Professional wrestling has become a showy display of graphic violence, sexual themes and ever more dangerous stunts,” she said. “The WWF has deliberately chosen to promote profit at the expense of the most basic safety of its performers.”

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