Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Roethlisberger and the law

I'm having trouble getting a sense for how big of a national deal that the Ben Roethlisberger crash is, because here in Morgantown there are radio updates every time that they do the news (if not more frequently). What's more, my satellite is linked up to receive all of the Pittsburgh local channels, so you can imagine what that's like. Nonetheless, there seems to be a couple of interesting law issues that have arisen-- I know there are law school types that read this, so I'm curious to hear your take on it.

Every NFL player, in the least, has a clause in his contract that prohibits risky behavior; the article above has it quoted as "significant risk of personal injury." Some players known for risky behavior have more specific provisions; Kellen Winslow is well-known for getting in a motorcycle wreck himself (though while performing stunts in a closed parking lot, as opposed to Roethlisberger getting hit by an alleged red-light runner) despite an explicit clause in his contract that forbade him from riding his bike. Due to this aspect of his contract, the Browns (Winslow's club) were able to reclaim a portion of the signing bonus they awarded Winslow when he inked on with the team.

The $64,000 question-- or several million dollar question, perhaps-- is whether the Roethlisberger's club, the Pittsburgh Steelers, will be able to reclaim any portion of the bonus money paid to their star quarterback. Personally, I don't think they are going to be able to get any of the money back. It comes down to defining Roethlisberger's behavior as "risky," or subjecting him to a "significant risk of personal injury." I'm not sure that driving a motor vehicle on a public roadway can be construed as risky in and of itself. Granted, a motorcycle is more risky than a car, but motorcycles are still legal vehicles. If it is found that he was speeding or broke a law, and this was the cause of the accident, then that may be some margin that the Steelers can work on. I just don't see simply riding a motorcycle as being defined as inherently risky in court.

Further, current Pennsylvania state law makes wearing a helmet optional. Roethlisberger is on record as saying he doesn't like wearing a helmet when he rides. That does make riding a motorcycle more risky...but driving a car without a helmet is more risky too. Walking without a helmet is more risky than walking with one. People are making a large deal of the fact that he wasn't wearing a helmet-- usually for the issue of safety, not breach of contract-- but I don't see how the fact he wasn't wearing a helmet, especially considering it wasn't illegal, can play any role in court either.

Ultimately, it seems like Roethlisberger should be back with the team by opening day-- evidently the most serious injury was a broken jaw, which takes approximately seven weeks to heal. The NFL season typically starts around the first of September.

UPDATE: KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh is reporting this morning that Roethlisberger does not have a valid motorcycle license, and that his temporary motorcycle license expired in March. This changes the situation completely; while there's no inherent increase in risk by driving a motorcycle with or without a license (considering it has been previously earned), a court definitely sees driving without a license as a risky activity. I'd say that if this turns out to be true, Pittsburgh has a more than fair chance of reclaiming of their QB's signing bonus.

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