The annual Hall of Fame Game, held in Canton, Ohio, is the official start of the NFL preseason. This year, however, NFL fans were forced to wait an extra week after the NFL canceled the 2016 game out of safety concerns that resulted from mismanaged field construction.
Several NFL analysts and former players applauded the league’s judgment in canceling the game out of player safety concerns. Not surprisingly, though, fans were not as pleased with the league’s seemingly last-minute decision to cancel the game.
In fact, some fans have decided to take their grievance to court, filing a class action lawsuit against the NFL, NFL Museum Inc. and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. See Biland, et al. v. NFL, et al., 5:16-cv-02010 (N.D. Ohio Aug. 11, 2016); voluntarily dismissed and refiled as Herrick, et al. v. NFL, et al., 2:16-cv-06324 (C.E. Cal Aug. 23, 2016).
The complaint asserts the tickets to the Hall of Fame Game establish legal, enforceable contracts. As such, the complaint opines that the league’s failure to provide a game to ticket holders constitutes a breach of contract. As a result of the breach, the class is seeking upwards of $5 million in damages.
The fans are attempting to certify two classes pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23(a) and 23(b)(3), purporting to represent thousands of similarly situated plaintiffs who have lost as a result of the breach of contract. The first class is known as the “Canceled Game Class,” while the other is the “Canceled Game California Subclass.”
The Canceled Game Class includes all persons who paid for and/or acquired tickets to the 2016 Hall of Fame Game, while the California Subclass focuses on California.
The complaint alleges both classes sustained damages including: 1) out-of-pocket costs of the tickets to attend the game; 2) lodging and travel expenses; 3) costs associated with items purchased on the day of the game (including items purchased while defendants purposely concealed the fact that the game had already been canceled; and 4) missed hours and days of employment for certain fans who used vacation time attend the game.
The complaint alleges that the NFL’s actions were in bad faith and acted “wantonly, obdurately and oppressively” in connection with the game. The complaint asserts that the NFL previously faced problems with the field turf at the Hall of Fame Game stadium in 2015 after Pittsburgh Steelers’ kicker Shaun Suisham suffered a career ending injury in the 2015 game.
Because of this, the claimants assert that the NFL knew or had reason to know that close supervision was necessary in order to ensure the stadium and field construction would be completed both in a safe and timely manner.
In support thereof, the complaint points out several errors committed by the NFL during preparation for the game that ultimately led to its cancellation. The most glaring problem was the use of improper paint on the turf which congealed and created a playing surface that was deemed unplayable.
The amended and refiled complaint in California adds in additional allegations based on comments made by Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee that the NFL Players Association and team physicians were telling players to stay off the field.
On top of that, the NFL allegedly concealed from fans the fact that the game was canceled so that fans would continue to buy concessions and souvenirs leading up to the game. The complaint notes that the Packers and Colts were told at 6:40 p.m. the game was canceled, but the fans were not apprised of this fact until 8 p.m., when the game was supposed to start, now supported by the new allegations from McAfee (“we weren’t allowed to tweet after we found out that the game was canceled”).
According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, NFL officials sent Hall of Fame members and other VIPs’ text messages that the game was canceled, but instructed them not to tell the fans. If true, this allegation could be the proverbial smoking gun for the fans along with McAfee’s comments. First, however, they must obtain class certification.
With regard to the classes, the complaint asserts that the NFL’s self-inflicted errors and mismanagement created the situation in which the field was damaged, and ticket holders did not have a seat that corresponded to their purchased ticket.
Similar to the Canceled Game Class, previous events put the NFL on notice that the field maintenance and construction process needed to be more closely monitored to ensure the field was playable and every ticket holder had a seat.
The complaint points to Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas, where ticket holders were left seatless without being given replacement seats. See Laffin v. National Football League, 2011 WL 1396887 (N.D. Tex. 2011). In that case, the NFL was forced to pay more than $76,000 in compensation to fans who were left without seats for the game.
The compensation package gave fans $2,400, a ticket to the 2012 Super Bowl, a trip to a future Super Bowl with airfare and a four-night hotel stay and a check for $5,000 or more, depending on whether expenses were documented.
The NFL has already offered a settlement package to the classes, but it was rejected. The settlement offer included a refund of the face-value of the tickets, including all shipping and handling and processing fees, prepaid parking purchased through the Hall of Fame, presale reservation fees, one night of hotel accommodations and Hall of Fame memorabilia. Counsel for the plaintiffs has made clear that the fans do not want memorabilia — they want all of their money back.
In light of the league’s past missteps, it would seem that both prospective classes have a strong case.
The fact that the league has already made a settlement offer may suggest the same. The purported class members have some leverage based on the Laffin case, and McAfee’s comments. The most likely outcome is that the league settles with both classes.
Given the allegations of actual or constructive knowledge of past problems, and the rhetoric from the plaintiffs, expect the payout to exceed that of previous league-fan disputes.