The NFL punished the team harshly for its bounty system—but are Sean Payton and the other coaches also susceptible to lawsuits?
Last week, the NFL announced harsh penalties against the New Orleans Saints for their so-called "bounty program" organized by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a system that provided cash incentives for injuring opposing players. The league suspended Williams, head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, and an assistant coach for a year and docked the team $500,000 and two second-round draft picks.
The punishment, which some felt was hypocritically draconian, seemed to bring an end to the fallout from the bounty program. But plaintiffs' attorneys and at least one U.S. Senator may feel differently, opening the door for potential lawsuits against the team and its personnel.
"There's always the possibility of litigation," said Gabe Feldman, sports law professor at Tulane University Law School. "The real question is the likelihood of success."
Feldman said that current or former players who were injured on plays that may have involved bounty programs could file an intentional tort claim in state court. Defendants in a tort claim could include players, coaches and even top Saints officials if they were aware of the bounty scheme.
An intentional tort claim seeks to prove that a person or entity intentionally caused mental or physical harm to another person. But Feldman said that potential plaintiffs may be stymied by the tort doctrine known as assumption of risk.
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"The notion is that NFL players consent to repeated violent conduct because that's part of the game," he said. "What they don't consent to is conduct of an intent to injure or reckless disregard for player safety."
Any litigation would probably hinge on the plaintiffs' ability to prove that a Saints player deliberately injured an opponent. But many of the hits that led to bounty payments, such as this 2010 tackle that ended quarterback Kurt Warner's career, were legal under NFL rules and therefore covered by the assumption of risk doctrine.
Lawsuits arising from legal in-game hits would be a first in NFL history. Though the league is currently facing a rash of lawsuits from former players over its alleged failure to properly inform them of the long-term risks of concussions, none of the lawsuit concern specific, legal hits sustained in game action.
Feldman said that proving a legal hit was delivered with intent to injure, even if it led to a bounty payout, would be next to impossible.
"If it's a legal hit, unless you have testimony where [a Saints player] says 'I hit you with the intent to injure you,' I don't know how you could have any success in litigation," he said.