NFL Punter Claims Turf Unreasonably Dangerous

Over the years, we here at Abnormal Use have shared with you our great love of American football.  In so doing, we have tried to keep you abreast with any football-related litigation.  We reported on several product liability suits against the NFL, including those regarding the risk of heat stroke and those involving the on-going concussion issue.  Recently, we even told you about a fan’s lawsuit against the Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium and, at the college level, we wrote of  the fabled South Carolina football parking lot jurisprudence.

Now, a former punter from the Houston Texans has sued the Harris County Convention and Sports Corporation, the agency that operates Reliant Stadium.  According to reports, Brett Hartmann tore his anterior cruciate ligament and fractured a bone when he allegedly caught his foot in a seam in the turf in a game against the Atlanta Falcons last December.  Hartmann alleges that the Stadium’s practice of piecing together 1,200, 8′x8′ palettes of grass prior to every home game creates an “unsafe turf” condition.

As a result of the seam between the palettes, the punter allegedly suffered a “significant and career-threatening injury.”

This suit is intriguing on several levels.  First, this is not a claim in which the player was injured because the surface was “hard,” as claims of that type have little chance of making it past the summary judgment stage.  Rather, this premises liability claim identifies a specific, allegedly dangerous condition on the playing surface.  Even though the condition may have been open and obvious to Hartmann, it is also unlikely that it is one that he could have avoided during the course of a game.

Second, it is questionable whether the seams are a dangerous condition.  The field is examined by the NFL and officials prior to every game; it has never been declared unfit for play.  The suit cites several players and coaches of other teams who have been quoted about a poor playing surface.  Those quotes, however, speak generally about the turf and not specifically about the seams.  As such, we don’t have enough information to determine whether the seams – if they exist – are in fact dangerous and the cause of Hartmann’s injuries.

Finally, while there is no disputing the injuries, it is uncertain whether this incident is the reason Hartmann’s career is “threatened.”  For starters, he was released just prior to his only season in the NFL before being picked up by the Texans.  Following his surgery, he was suspended the first 4 games of the 2012 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.  After that suspension was reduced to three games, he was suspended an additional eight games for testing positive for a prescription weight-loss drug.

Hartmann denies the allegations but has chosen not to appeal so as not to delay a return for the 2013 season.  Nonetheless, there may be other factors at play here.

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