As noted before, Martha Hart spoke with CBS Sports to promote tonight’s “Dark Side of the Ring” episode on the tragic passing of her husband, pro wrestling legend Owen Hart. During the interview, Martha talked about the stunt that went wrong at WWE Over The Edge on May 23, 1999, and why she holds WWE directly responsible for Owen falling almost 80 feet to his death. She accused WWE of taking cost-cutting shortcuts on performing the stunt, hiring unqualified personnel and setting off a domino effect of catastrophic choices. She named Bobby Talbert as the “hacker” hired after experienced rigger Joe Branam had refused to do the stunt. Branam had done rigging work for The Rolling Stones and Elton John, among others.
“First of all, the stunt itself was so negligent,” Hart said. “They hired hackers they knew would do anything they wanted when they knew that proper riggers they had hired in the past had told them, ‘We won’t do this kind of stunt, it’s not safe.’ Everything about that stunt was done wrong. The entire set-up was wrong. The equipment was wrong — the harness, for example, was meant for dragging people behind a car. It was a stunt harness, but it wasn’t meant to suspend someone 80 feet above the ground.
“What was happening to Owen when he was sitting in that harness is, his circulation was getting cut off and he couldn’t breathe. Then, the snap shackle that they used, that snap shackle is not meant for rigging humans. It’s meant for the sole use of rigging sailboats. It’s a sailboat clip that, by design, is meant to open on load. By the very design of the stunt, it was meant to fail, because the weight of Owen on that clip actually made it more likely it would open spontaneously.”
She continued, “Proper riggers have a few things they would never do. First, they would never do a stunt without redundancy. That didn’t happen; there was no redundancy. Second, they never, ever, let the talent have any control into the stunt. These guys were telling Owen, ‘This cord taped here, don’t pull it until you get to the ground.’ That would never happen; proper riggers don’t rig things this way. The other thing is, WWE is a billion-dollar company. Owen never questioned his safety. He thought for sure they were hiring people that knew what they were doing. He was putting his life in their hands, and they didn’t care. They didn’t have any regard for Owen’s life whatsoever. They went outside of qualified riggers that had good experience.”
Longtime WWE lawyer Jerry McDevitt issued a statement to CBS Sports in response to Martha’s comments. McDevitt said WWE has never told their side of the tragic story, at least not outside of court. He went on with WWE’s side of what happened with the court battle.
“The reality is, we’ve never told our side of the story of what happened — at least not outside of court. We told it in court, but when she talks about the way the lawsuit unfolded over the years, it really isn’t accurate what she’s saying,” McDevitt said. “What she did whenever this happened is, she hired a lawyer in Kansas City who we caught essentially trying to fix the judicial selection process to get a judge that was more to their liking. We caught them and went all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. The Missouri Supreme Court said, ‘No, no, no. We’re not going to let that happen.’ They essentially appointed an independent judge to come in from outside of Kansas City to oversee the proceedings. We were basically trying to find out what happened that night. Martha was not even remotely interested in finding out what happened that night; she just wanted to used it as a vehicle to beat up a business that she didn’t like that her husband was in, the wrestling business.”
Martha also talked to CBS about how she believes Vince McMahon was manipulating the Hart Family, which led to issues with members of the family.
She said, “Vince was manipulating Owen’s family, which resulted in some of the family members working against me. The Hart family overall didn’t support the lawsuit, but some worked against me. They stole my legal documents and were faxing them to the defense. It was like they had our whole playbook. They were just muddying the waters because they knew they didn’t have the case. They just muddied the waters and made everything a mess. There was just this nonstop disrespect.”
McDevitt remembered the situation differently, noting that the the Hart Family was improperly offered a share of any money Martha made off the court case against WWE.
McDevitt continued in his statement, “Her and her lawyer, in reality, had tried to get the members of the Hart family, Owen’s brothers and sisters, to sign a document in which they would agree to support Martha and her case and they would not talk to WWE. In exchange for that, they were all promised a share of any verdict or settlement, which is highly illegal, completely improper and you can get in big trouble for that. What happened was some of the members of the Hart family were offended by this because they realized this was wrong. … They knew this was wrong and they faxed me those documents, which I fell out of the chair when I read them. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is completely illegal, you can’t do this stuff.’ All of that was then brought to the attention of the judge in Kansas City.”
Martha ended up receiving an $18 million settlement from the wrongful death lawsuit against WWE in 2000, and a 2013 settlement for copyright infringement after WWE used personal photos in a Hart Family documentary. McDevitt’s statement also included comments on the 2000 settlement. McDevitt said Vince took responsibility for Owen’s death during court-ordered mediation while offering a settlement. He noted that the initial settlement was turned down.
“She talked about how $18 million settlement, she didn’t really want to do that, she wanted justice,” McDevitt said in his statement. “Again, that’s just not true. There was court-ordered mediation. We went to the mediation, and her lawyers were demanding $35 million and some admission of punitive damages. Vince told her right there, ‘Look, Martha, I feel so bad for what happened. I feel responsible because this happened on my watch. I want to take care of you and your family, I loved Owen.’ He was almost crying. We offered $17 million to take care of her. How many times does a CEO walk in a room and say he feels responsible? ‘I’m not going to argue, I just feel responsible for what happened.’ They turned it down; they wanted to go to court for their $35 million. Fine, we’ll go and litigate. The next day, I get a call from her Canadian lawyer, saying they didn’t want to do it because they knew what they were facing with the other things I talked about. They said, ‘If you could put a little more money in. If you can go to $18 million we’ll settle right now.’ That’s how the settlement went down.”