Former Linebacker Sues NFL And Houston Texans For Injury At NRG Field

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jan 13, 2017

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NFLDeMeco Ryans, a former linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the NFL and the Houston Texans. Ryans attributes a career-ending injury to poor field conditions at NRG Stadium. He blames the Texans for installing a field with an uneven surface and the NFL for allowing games to be played on it.

NRG’s Field

Ryans tore his Achilles tendon during a game against the Texans on November 2, 2014. At that time, the field was covered with StrathAyr Natural Turf Modules. StrathAyr’s website describes the system as an “instant lawn.” The system consists of 8-foot square modules that are laid over the existing stadium surface to create a natural turf. The modules can be removed for events that do not need grass, and are designed so that individual modules can be replaced if they show signs of wear.

According to StrathAyr’s website, NRG (formerly Reliant) Stadium purchased the system in 2002. The Stadium removed the turf modules about twenty times a year in order to host rodeos, monster truck rallies, Disney on Ice, basketball, and other events that do not require a grass field. The website also claims that the modules were removed in 2015 “and are now undergoing refurbishment.”

According to the NFL, however, the Texans decided to “ditch” the field in response to player complaints and injuries. Among the injured players are Texans’ pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who hurt his knee after stepping in a hole on the turf; Patriots’ wide receiver Wes Welker, who attributed an ACL tear to the field; and Texans’ punter Brett Hartmann, who blamed the turf for an ACL injury and fractured bone.

The field conditions at NRG have been disparaged by players for years. Coaches Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy have also criticized the field. The primary complaint is that seams between turf squares come apart during play, creating gaps in which players’ feet become stuck. After calling the field “terrible” and “inconsistent,” Belichick explained:

It’s all the little trays of grass and some of them are soft and some of them are firm and they don’t all fit well together, those seams. … Some of it feels like a sponge, some of it feels real firm and hard like the Miami surface. One step you’re on one, the other step you’re on another. I really think it’s one of the worst fields I’ve seen.

The stadium switched to FieldTurf in 2015. The manufacturers of the popular artificial turf claim that it is at least as safe as, and possibly safer than, natural grass fields.

Ryans’ Lawsuit

Ryans is not the first player to seek compensation for an injury sustained while playing at NRG. Hartmann, the Texans’ former punter, sued the county agency that owns the stadium but not his former team.

Ryans, on the other hand, sued not just the Houston Texans and Australian-based StrathAyr, but also the NFL. He asserts that StrathAyr manufactured and sold a product that is dangerous to athletes, and that the Texans and the NFL were both negligent in allowing games to be played on it.

The lawsuit alleges that “the patchwork modules caused continuity problems that include gaps, seams, indentations and lifted areas that can cause players to land awkwardly, trip, stumble, or have toes or feet caught in the turf.” Ryans contends that the Texans did nothing to remedy the problem until top draft choice Jadeveon Clowney, “their ultimate prize player,” was injured.

NFL Liability

The NFL requires teams to certify before each home game that its playing surface meets NFL guidelines. The NFL’s alleged failure to enforce its guidelines at NRG may expose the NFL to liability.

Ryans’ attorney acknowledges that football is a dangerous sport, but argues that Ryans’ injury was preventable. Unlike injuries caused by contact, Ryans’ noncontact injury was caused by the StrathAyr field. Had the field been replaced years ago, when its problems first became apparent, Ryans’ lawyer believes that his client, a former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, would still be earning a hefty NFL salary.

Whether Ryans will recover damages from StrathAyr, the Texans, or the NFL will probably not be known for years. The lawsuit sends a message, however, that sports stadiums have an obligation to maintain playing surfaces that do not endanger players.

Photo Credit: Silver Football and NFL Logo Over Bronze Silk Background, by C_osett, Public Domain.

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