While the world of professional wrestling is accustomed to feuding between its members in its ongoing performance soap opera, the family of former pro wrestler Owen Hart seeks to deliver a different type of smackdown on both World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (“WWE”) and the company’s corporate heads, CEO Vince McMahon and his wife, Linda McMahon. This cage match won’t take place in the ring, but in the District of Connecticut, where Hart’s widow, Martha Hart, filed an action in June 2010 alleging improper exploitation of Hart’s career and personality. The play-by-play of this legal duel cannot be understood without knowledge of Owen Hart’s tragic backstory and Martha Hart’s earlier legal showdowns with the McMahons.
Owen Hart died in May 1999 during a televised WWE match in Kansas City, Missouri, when he fell from an 80-foot-high apparatus that was supposed to lower him into the ring as part of a dramatic stunt for the main event. Mrs. Hart filed a lawsuit shortly thereafter against various parties, including WWE, and Vince and Linda McMahon individually. While the lawsuit eventually was settled for $18 million, the bad blood remained due to Martha Hart’s insulted feelings over the McMahons’ decision to continue the show on the night of her husband’s accident.
Martha Hart’s federal complaint launched a host of claims, including Lanham Act violations under 15 U.S.C. § 1125, invasion of privacy, violation of the right of publicity, unjust enrichment and breach of contract. An amended complaint was filed less than two months later, refining and abandoning some of the claims made by Hart. The focus of the case is WWE’s commercial exploitation of Hart’s wrestling career and personality, including the recent DVD release, “Hart & Soul: The Family Anthology,” which featured Owen Hart and his brother Bret and their father Stu Hart – all famous wrestlers in their own right.
Martha Hart alleges that these videos violate various agreements between her late husband and WWE relating to the exploitation of Hart’s likeness, trademarks, and other types of intellectual property used before and during his WWE career. One key clause in the agreements pertains to the use of this intellectual property upon termination, limiting WWE’s rights for certain uses and requiring an approval right and royalties in other instances. Owen Hart’s untimely death triggered this provision and established a new story line in which WWE allegedly profited from the release of several videos and DVDs without seeking permission from Mrs. Hart for use of trademarks and other rights that existed prior to a 1996 agreement.
What appears to rankle the Hart estate the most is the effect that the exploitation has had on the Owen Hart Foundation. Started by Mrs. Hart after Owen’s death, the Foundation’s “strategy and success,” according to the complaint, has been Martha Hart’s private and public disassociation of Owen’s name and likeness from anything WWE- or McMahon-related. Given the intentional efforts to create a divide between the wild world of professional wrestling and the charitable endeavors of the Foundation to further Owen Hart’s legacy, the complaint poses the question of whether consumers would confuse the two “products” in a manner that is actionable under trademark or other law.
This and other questions abound as Martha Hart hopes to score a knockout and prevent WWE from whispering Hart’s name. With the filing of the complaint itself, Martha Hart delivered an early blow, disrupting Linda McMahon’s campaign for Senator by forcing her to field press questions regarding her business practices during her tenure as one of the heads of WWE.
Not to be outdone in terms of rhetorical flair and drama, both WWE and the McMahons filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit on September 20, 2010, accusing Hart of demonizing the defendants purely for personal gain, in part through her Web site, www.marthahartsueswwe.com. The legal documents, totaling more than 100 pages, deliver repeated blows to each one of Hart’s “bizarre and legally defective” allegations, as they are referred to by defendants, and also argue that the lawsuit cannot be sustained against the McMahons in their capacity as corporate officers.
Although Linda McMahon may still be smarting from her electoral defeat at the hands of Richard Blumenthal, the cage match between the litigants will continue in late January 2011, when they face off for oral argument on the motions.