Is MLS liable for a player’s foul temper and concussion treatment?

A lawsuit filed by former D.C. United goalkeeper Charlie Horton raises a few interesting questions … and some that seem a little less interesting. (Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer.)

Like many legal documents, this suit has a few aspects that will make anyone with the slightest knowledge of the sport laugh out loud. I’ll never understand why lawyers think they can get away with such nonsense, but they’re not alone in the “post-fact” landscape. Horton’s four caps with the U23s (sharing time with Cody Cropper, Ethan Horvath and Zack Steffen) are distorted into “a starting goalkeeper for the national team.” That may be technically true. The assertion that Horton played in Olympic qualifying games is not. He was on the roster, but Steffen and Horvath played all five games (four wins, one very costly loss).

The allegation is as follows: After United’s players watched video of their recent match against Dallas, Espindola confronted Horton about a practice-field incident “weeks prior.” Horton said he wasn’t interested in talking about it, but then …

(Again, this is the plaintiff’s side of the case — we’ll see how the various defendants dispute what happened.) Espindola is the sole defendant in the first three counts of the complaint: assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The next day, coach Ben Olsen met with Horton. Here’s how the plaintiffs sum it up:

The notion that a coach, a team and a league may be negligent (Count IV of the complaint is “negligent supervision,” directed at Olsen and United) for hiring a player with “fire in his belly” won’t win Horton and his legal team many sympathizers in the soccer community. And skeptics will question how Horton was able to play for the Richmond Kickers (8 games, 16 saves, 0.88 GAA — good enough to get called back up to United for part of the summer) and return to preseason camp with United, only to announce his retirement after Olsen told him he wouldn’t make the team in 2017.

But here are the interesting aspects:

1. Is MLS, under the single-entity structure, liable for all the actions of all its teams? 

Count V (Negligent Hiring and Retention) is directed at MLS, with this paragraph included:

2. Did D.C. United follow proper concussion procedures?

Curiously, no one on United’s training staff — which surely would’ve been responsible for any decision on whether Horton trained that day — is listed as a defendant. It’s Espindola, Olsen, United and MLS.

The complaint goes on to say Horton’s condition worsened overnight. He then reported the problem to trainer Brian Goodstein, who referred to an unnamed doctor and put him in the Concussion Protocol.

Count VI of the complaint is “Respondeat Superior/Vicarious Liability,” which would surely require a lawyer to untangle.

The complaint doesn’t specify an amount of damages sought. See the full version at Courthouse News.

The law firm is Ashcraft & Gerel, which advertises frequently on D.C.-area television.

For sake of comparison: When Bryan Namoff sought $12 million for his career-ending concussion, he sued Goodstein, then-coach Tom Soehn, D.C. United, then-team physician Christopher Annunziata and Commonwealth Orthopedics. He also had a malpractice suit against United, Goodstein and Commonwealth, plus a separate malpractice suit against Annunziata. In skimming through the docket reports, it seems these cases dragged on forever, with a couple dozen doctors and a few outliers (Langley School? Arlington Soccer Association) also served with subpoenas.

(Disclaimer: I’ve been treated at Commonwealth, as have a couple of relatives. My hand is much better now, thanks.)

As Steven Goff reported, that case did not end well for Namoff.

D.C. Superior Court documents show the sides did not settle. The case, which sought $20 million in total damages, was dismissed.

A judge ruled workers’ compensation laws barred Namoff’s claim against United, Soehn and Goodstein.

Namoff’s claim against Annunziata and Commonwealth Orthopaedics was withdrawn after the defense provided a detailed list of evidence that Namoff was not as sick as he stated.

In an interview Tuesday, attorneys for Annunziata and the medical group said no payment was ever offered or made.

Why wasn’t MLS sued as well? Perhaps it’s simply the different nature of the injury. Horton claims Espindola inflicted his injury, and MLS is negligent for employing him. Namoff wasn’t claiming an assault; he was claiming negligent medical care.

So in addition to the ongoing concern about concussions in sports, the Horton case could be one to watch for those interested in understanding the league’s complex single-entity structure.

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