Disney, Paramount Can't Escape Lawsuit Over Risks of Filming Football Movies

'The Longest Yard'
Paramount

The 2005 remake 'The Longest Yard' grossed $190 million.

Football has returned, but what will be the fate of other productions — including football movies — proceeding despite known health risks? In the era of COVID, there's quite a few of them.

In a perhaps surprising ruling, a Los Angeles judge has allowed the family of deceased football player Darryl Hammond to move forward in a wrongful death lawsuit targeting Disney and Paramount Pictures. The suit accuses the studios of concealing information about the risks of head injuries from football. Hammond, who played 15 years of arena football, was an extra on the 2005 film The Longest Yard, starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, as well as the 2006 film Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg. The complaint speaks to how the studios allegedly wanted violent scenes and directed him to be repeatedly tackled during rehearsals and filming.

In response to the suit, the studios argued that Hammond's family has blurred the differences between a professional football career and a limited role in a choreographed motion picture. But for now, the allegations are enough to move to discovery in the eyes of L.A. Superior Court Judge David Sotelo.

"The Court finds that Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged the concealment and nondisclosure claims," writes the judge in an Aug. 26 order, which hasn't been publicly reported until now. "The type of specificity that Disney argues applies does not make sense when the allegation is that Disney concealed information. Here, Plaintiffs allege that at the time of filming Disney knew of the short-term and long-term brain injuries associated with repetitive traumatic impacts to the head to which football players are exposed.  Such knowledge was acquired through medical studies available to Disney.  Disney allegedly concealed and failed to disclose the risks of brain injury to Decedent, who relied on Disney’s silence to continue filming."

In the decision, Sotelo rejects the notion that Hammond's sole remedy was filing a worker's comp claim given the alleged concealment of information his family says led to brain injuries, disease, and death. Additionally, although the movies were filmed more than 15 years ago and the suit wasn't filed until fairly recently, Sotelo says the plaintiff can overcome a two-year statute of limitations because the extent of the brain injuries wasn't discovered until a 2017 autopsy.

The studios are at least able to beat one claim — negligent misrepresentation. Before filming, Hammond had signed a waiver acknowledging "that football may be a hazardous activity which entails significant risk of injury or death to myself," and according to the judge, his family's complaint failed to allege what actual misrepresentations were made.

Overall, though, the decision marks a big setback for the studios. Judge Sotelo is allowing Hammond's family to seek punitive damages.

The studios must now answer the complaint and broadly outline their defenses. If they follow the lead of another co-defendant in this suit, the case could even have some applicability to the legal dangers of filming during a pandemic. That's because according to a filing on Monday from Tennessee Arena Football, injuries were partly attributable and proximately caused by Hammond's own actions to get on the football field. Tennessee Arena Football also makes an affirmative defense of "obvious danger" and "voluntary assumption of risk."