Believe it or not, being a certified billionaire can be pretty darn expensive. Not only do those billions come with a pretty high tax bracket, but just about everybody you meet is going to want as big a piece of that fortune as the government does. Business executives around the planet know this all too well, especially WWE owner and CEO Vince McMahon. While McMahon’s empire is heavily scripted, the money he’s made through it is entirely real, and with thousands of former employees all begging for a piece of the pie, WWE has needed to rely on a team of ace attorneys lead by Jerry McDevitt to keep the company’s money where it belongs.
With countless retired wrestlers milking the family for everything they’ve got, WWE and the McMahons have been sued countless times since they’ve become the self-professed worldwide leaders in sports entertainment. Describing himself as their consigliere, McDevitt has handled their defense since 1987, making sure the more frivolous lawsuits get cast aside, and minimizing the damage in the more serious cases. While there were both wins and losses before McDevitt came along, it’s mostly been victories since he joined the fray, showing just how valuable a good legal staff can be for a million dollar company.
Thanks to the old adage that the real world is faker than wrestling, most of the details are a whole lot less sordid than they sound. Most of the times Vince McMahon gets sued, there’s little basis to the claimant, and the trial only became famous because of his high profile. That said, the losses were often spectacular enough to change the industry, making it an ordeal of great importance every time WWE is put on trial. Keep reading to learn about 8 times the McMahon family went to court and came out clean, plus 7 times they had to pay.
15. CAME OUT CLEAN: A Con Man Clears A Scandal
Vince McMahon and his family were only connected to the 1992 WWE sex scandal in that they owned the company, yet it was still extremely important they handled the accusations against top executives in a respectful and responsible manner. That there were a number of claimants and alleged abusers in the affair only complicated matters, especially since one of the accused was McMahon’s right hand man, Pat Patterson. Ultimately, the company released timekeeper Mel Phillips and backstage agent Terry Garvin due to allegations made by wrestlers Tom Cole and Barry Orton, claiming they had been sexually abused by those officials while working for WWE as teenagers. The complicated part is that Patterson was never really punished, despite a third claimant named Murray Hodgson having some highly disturbing and specific accusations against him. Standing behind one of his most valued employees, McMahon never believed Hodgson, arguing he was quickly fired for being bad at his job and nothing else happened. This part of the story actually wound up in court, where it was discovered Hodgson had sued a number of his past employees for the same thing, outing him as a habitual conman taking advantage of the situation.
14. HAD TO PAY: Marty Jannetty Breaks Chuck Austin’s Neck
How much training does one really need to lose a squash match? Outside of learning how to fall and taking a few dropkicks, it can’t be that complicated…or can it? WWE has been telling fans for decades now not to try this at home, so they should probably realize better than anybody that stepping inside a wrestling ring takes a considerable amount of understanding and preparation about what’s going to happen when they do so. Chuck Austin didn’t quite have that awareness, convincing WWE to hire him as enhancement talent despite only having less than six weeks experience in the sport. In Austin’s lone WWE match, teaming with Lanny Poffo against The Rockers, he improperly took Marty Jannetty’s finishing move the Rocker Dropper, instantly breaking his neck and becoming paralyzed. Austin sued WWE for failing to prepare him for the stunt, initially earning $26.7 million when a jury agreed with him. While WWE appealed and had the amount reduced to $10 million, it still significantly beat the $3 million Austin was seeking in the suit, making the one time jobber the clear winner, albeit at the tragic cost of ever walking again.
13. CAME OUT CLEAN: Raven Et Al. Complain About Healthcare
With the incredibly rough and tumble lifestyle all pro wrestlers are forced to live, it’s kind of amazing there’s only one well known incident of an injured superstar suing WWE and winning. It only becomes more amazing when you learn WWE doesn’t provide their employees with healthcare, considering all wrestling talent independent contractors. While this concept has been highly controversial for decades, only a handful of former WWE employees have attempted to do anything about it. One of the more high profile examples started in 2008, when Raven led his friends Chris Kanyon and Mike Sanders in a class-action suit that could have cost Vince upwards of $225 million. Raven’s goals weren’t solely to line his and his friends’ pockets, though, later claiming he genuinely hoped to change the industry and make promoters responsible for healthcare. Unfortunately for Raven, he couldn’t drum up enough support amongst more recent WWE employees, because judges soon ruled that the statute of limitations had run out on Sanders, Kanyon, and Raven’s contracts.
12. HAD TO PAY: The WWF Becomes The WWE Universe
In a 2008 interview, Jerry McDevitt himself argued he’s only suffered one total loss since his partnership with WWE began. The other examples on this list notwithstanding, according to his lawyer, Vince McMahon’s biggest defeat was losing the letters WWF to a group they still derisively refer to as “tree huggers.” The World Wildlife Fund was founded in 1961, beating the McMahon family to the punch at the initials no matter how you look at it. In fact, the Worldwide Wrestling Federation didn’t even drop the third W until 1979. The two WWF’s were able to work together in peace for decades until 1994, when the Switzerland based environmental charity organization decided they wanted sole rights to the initials. Seven years of legal wrangling followed, ending once and for all when a judge gave full rights of the letters to the charity. In a manner of months, the World Wrestling Federation rebranded all of their logos and trademarks with the new WWE logo, and no one in the company has ever looked back.
11. CAME OUT CLEAN: Sable Claims Sexual Harassment
Like many wrestlers in the Attitude Era, the appeal behind Sable can be a little difficult to explain to modern day wrestling fans. Yes, she was a gorgeous blonde, but she couldn’t do much in the ring and it often felt like she wasn’t even trying on the microphone. Even so, there’s no denying Sable was the most popular female in WWE during the Attitude Era, or as she put it, men wanted her, and women wanted to be her. Sable started to put it in a less rhythmic way when she left the company in 1999, her new catchphrase being a $110 million lawsuit against Vince McMahon and WWE over sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions. In the suit, Sable alleged constant horrible treatment from her coworkers, plus McMahon and the writers repeatedly asking her to bare her breasts on Pay-Per-View despite her abject refusal. While it looked pretty serious upon first glance, the entire ordeal was dealt with in less than two months, settled out of court for an undisclosed but much lower fee. It couldn’t have been too bad, as Sable was back in WWE barely three years later.
10. HAD TO PAY: Martha Hart Blames WWE For Her Husband’s Death
WWE will hopefully never hold another event quite as disheartening as Over the Edge 1999, where a stunt gone wrong caused Owen Hart to fall from the ceiling to his death in the ring. The entire wrestling community mourned the incident, yet no one suffered more than Owen’s widow, Martha. Feeling WWE failed to properly prepare Owen for the stunt, and knowing that her deceased husband didn’t want to perform the stunt in the first place, Martha and Owen’s other remaining family members sued for wrongful death. The legal proceedings were vicious and lasted more than a year, ending with WWE settling out of court to the tune of $18 million. The Harts had initially planned on suing the company that manufactured the broken harness causing Owen’s fall, but changed their minds when WWE settled. Martha’s relationship with WWE has understandably remained rather dicey, as it seems the money was nowhere near enough for her to forgive them for causing her husband’s early demise. Whether or not she could continue to make a legal case out of that pain is a different story…
9. CAME OUT CLEAN: Martha Hart Wanted Owen Off DVDs
No one would deny Martha Hart deserves the world’s sympathies for the horrible way her husband was taken away from this world, WWE included. That the McMahon family was willing to settle in the millions was clearly a sign they saw some culpability in Owen’s death, yet it also made it evident they wanted to move on as fast as possible. Much closer to the situation, it’s been significantly more difficult for Martha to move on, especially when she still sees the occasional image of her husband on WWE programming. It’s exceptionally rare, almost entirely confined to DVD releases and the WWE Network, but there was a point in time when Martha wanted the company to stop using her husband in any way, shape, or form. Part of it was protracted pain, although there was also an issue of royalties, with Martha feeling WWE should have at least been paying her if they kept using Owen’s likeness. While she had a point on that second one, WWE thought it was going way too far to erase Owen from history, and even his brother Bret agreed. Ultimately, the case was settled out of court, with Martha receiving only a minor payout and Owen remaining in historic retrospectives where he belongs.
8. HAD TO PAY: Bruno Sammartino Thought Vince, Sr. Bilked His Checks
Thanks to the WWE Universe rapidly expanding under his control, Vince McMahon, Jr. has been sued a hell of a lot more than his father was, although that doesn’t mean Vince, Sr. didn’t come up in some of those legal proceedings. Probably the highest profile case of Senior’s time in charge was naturally related to the biggest star of his era, Bruno Sammartino. Shortly after Sammartino left WWE in 1981, he learned from one of McMahon’s business partners, Angelo Savoldi, that the company had been shortchanging him on portions of the gate he had been promised during his second reign as WWE Champion. He didn’t actually file suit until 1983, when Vince, Jr. had taken over for his father, and the initial suit was dismissed either way. However, things between Sammartino and the McMahon’s weren’t all cut and dry, as Bruno was convinced he was owed money, and wasn’t going to let one legal victory dissuade him. Fearing further trial dates, Vince settled with Bruno out of court by rehiring him as an announcer, paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars for only a few days work in part to make up for their past.
7. CAME OUT CLEAN: WCW And The Mirror Image
During the Monday Night Wars, plus a little bit before they even began, WWE, WCW, and sometimes even ECW made seemingly constant pot shots at one another and the programming they were offering fans. Despite this, they also all tried to bend the laws of gimmick infringement to copy some of their rival’s best ideas, tricking fans into watching one program over the other. Without question, the most successful example of this was the nWo, with whom WCW convinced fans WWE wrestlers Scott Hall and Kevin Nash were legitimately invading the company as their Razor Ramon and Diesel characters. Flipping the script off this list, WWE sued WCW over the angle, forcing Hall and Nash to admit on camera they didn’t work for WWE. The war wasn’t over there, though, and WWE soon introduced fake versions of Diesel and Razor Ramon on Raw, leading WCW to try and countersue for the same thing. Problem was, WWE did own the copyright to those characters, and the legal precedent already made it clear WCW was trying to copy them, and not the other way around. While WWE won and made enough money to eventually buy WCW, the almost identical suit in the other direction was thrown out instantly.
6. HAD TO PAY: The Body Becomes The Mind
They say wrestling is one of the most political sports around, and few former superstars stand as living proof of this statement quite like Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Once one of the most flamboyant wrestlers around, blood clots forced Ventura out of the ring and made him a legendary commentator for the better part of the ‘80s, followed by a career in literal politics starting in the late 1990s. Ventura’s interest in legal matters began well before he started signing laws as Minnesota’s governor, back when he sued WWE in 1990 over the use of his voice on video releases. Noticing some specifically worded phrases in his contract, Ventura realized he should be profiting every time WWE released something new featuring old footage of his work. Courts agreed, awarding him in the neighborhood of $900,000, and ensuring that McMahon would need to pay any time he appeared on video again. For many years, WWE circumvented this issue by bleeping Ventura’s commentary on historic releases, though they were eventually able to put it behind them and work together again. Whether that will change with the advent of the WWE Network remains to be seen, Ventura having commented it might be time to check out that specific wording once more and see how technology has caught up with it.
5. CAME OUT CLEAN: The Steroid Trial That Almost Killed WWE
For as catastrophic as the early ‘90s steroid distribution trial against Vince McMahon could have been, it instead turned into one of the shining moments of attorney Jerry McDevitt’s career. McMahon had been implicated along with disgraced physician Dr. George Zahorian, who was hired as a ringside assistant for a number of WWE events throughout the ‘80s, and was indeed found guilty of illegally distributing steroids to a number of athletes. While Vince admitted to using steroids on a handful of occasions, he strongly attested that he never once distributed them or told his employees they should use drugs of any kind to succeed. The Food and Drug Administration alleged McMahon and WWE had been conspiring against them along with Zahorian, but as McDevitt so aptly put it, that couldn’t have been possible because the FDA wasn’t even on their radar, having nothing to do with wrestling. Like we said, McDevitt was the real star of the trial, not calling a single witness for the defense and still managing to rip apart every piece of “evidence” the government had to offer. Wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and Nailz testified, although not in a relevant manner, and McMahon was eventually ruled completely innocent of all charges.
4. HAD TO PAY: The Battle Of The Kings
Vince McMahon has proven to be a particularly forgiving person throughout this list, hiring back a handful of people who sued him and sometimes even celebrating them with Hall of Fame inductions. That said, wrestlers like Jesse Ventura and Bruno Sammartino heavily contributed to WWE history prior to their legal problems with the company, so there was benefit to be found in making nice when the trial was over. Jerry Lawler had never worked for Vince McMahon when he sued WWE in the mid ‘80s, and nevertheless went on to enjoy more than 20 years with the company beginning some ten years after his trial ended. The issue at hand was Lawler’s famous moniker as “The King,” which WWE has infamously used a number of times over the years, as well. In this case, Harley Race was being promoted as “The King,” and in Lawler’s home state of Tennessee, no less, so Jerry took WWE to court over use of the nickname. The courts found Lawler had been using it much longer, especially in Tennessee, and WWE needed to cease their use as a result. That the King of the Ring tournament didn’t truly return to prominence until Lawler worked for the company is probably not a coincidence.
3. CAME OUT CLEAN: The IRS Thought Vince Forgot To Pay
Three of the scariest letters the United States government has to offer its citizens are IRS. The Internal Revenue Service has the ability to scare the hell out of just about anybody who crosses them, and the fact Vince McMahon says he sleeps easy in regards to his taxes should be a sign he pays them like anybody else. However, the IRS hasn’t been so trusting, perhaps because of an incident way back in the ‘50s when his father may or may not have fully paid taxes on money made through a fixed fight. During the investigation, McMahon, Jr. quoted his father as saying, “If I could just get through this I’d pay every nickel I owe and then some,” ever since adopting that philosophy as his own in all matters tax related. No doubt Vince McMahon is also like everybody else in that he wishes he didn’t have to pay so much, but he does, and therefore he has always come out clean when the IRS came knocking on his door.
2. HAD TO PAY: No Compete Clause? No Problem!
Ever since the Monday Night Wars, the majority of WWE superstars have been forced to sign non-compete clauses as part of their contracts. This sort of agreement is exactly what it sounds like—a small legal assurance that the talent won’t work elsewhere for a certain period of time after their contract with WWE comes to an end. Unless, of course, that contract ends by unusual means, or the wrestler simply decides it’s ridiculous and doesn’t want to do it. It seems like those two scenarios would describe almost every time a wrestler leaves WWE, and yet only two superstars thus far have really challenged the idea. This is particularly surprising considering both won, specifically Brock Lesnar in 2007 and Alberto Del Rio far more recently in 2014. In Lesnar’s case, WWE wanted him to wait over six years before ever wrestling again, which he felt directly infringed upon his ability to make a living. Del Rio’s case was pretty similar, with a shorter time frame attached, but with the bonus that he had been fired over a highly publicized racist incident where he was the victim, getting courts on his side from the start. Both wrestlers were allowed to start competed again well before their non-compete clauses would have allowed, trivializing the concept whenever WWE tries to use it again.
1. CAME OUT CLEAN (SO FAR): 50+ Ongoing Concussion Lawsuits
Chances are, despite their track record, WWE will continue getting sued by former employees and government officials for as long as the company exists. If anything, they’ll only need to deal with more frivolous lawsuits as their global scope continues to expand. Case in point, as of this writing, WWE is facing no less than 53 lawsuits from past wrestlers claiming concussions suffered throughout their career has affected their long term quality of life. CTE research may still be new, but we already know that getting hit in the head for any sport is a bad thing. Even so, attorney Konstantine Kyros, who represents all 50+ plaintiffs, has exhibited such shady practices in how he builds his client base that it already looks like he doesn’t have much of a case. Kyros has been accused of calling former wrestlers and badgering them on the phone before they had any complaints themselves, and was even seen handing out business cards at autograph conventions. This is only a step above ambulance chasing, and as important as continued concussion research is, by lumping everyone together in one blanket case, Kyros and these wrestlers are hurting one another more than helping, almost ensuring WWE will come out scot-free yet again.
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