The widow of a World Wrestling Entertainment performer who died in a televised 1999 stunt filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Connecticut-based company and its leaders, including Republican U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon.
Martha Hart said she learned two months ago that McMahon, who stepped down as WWE chief executive in the fall to run for Senate, and her husband, Vince, the current chairman, for years have used the image of her late husband, Owen Hart, in at least 37 videos and other materials without her knowledge and permission, and despite her objections to his likeness being associated with the pro-wrestling company.
"They'd have to be living under a rock if they didn't get that I don't want any association with them whatsoever or Owen to be associated with them whatsoever," said Martha Hart, who lives in Calgary, Alberta, with the couple's two children, now 18 and 14.
"I believe it is morally, ethically and legally wrong for the WWE to seek profit from Owen's death," she told reporters at a news conference held at a hotel in downtown Hartford. The WWE is based in Stamford.
Jerry McDevitt, an attorney for the WWE, called the lawsuit "a political stunt" coming as McMahon campaigns. Martha Hart's request for an injunction from a Canadian court in March to stop a video featuring Owen Hart — a request that was denied — was the first time the company had heard from the widow since she legally settled with it in 2000, he said.
WWE said it paid $10 million to Martha Hart, $3 million to each of her children and $1 million to each of Owen Hart's parents.
McDevitt also pointed out that Linda McMahon wasn't the CEO of the company when the video was released earlier this year, but Martha Hart said McMahon was in charge when the WWE decided to use his images in other videos.
"I don't think you'd see what happened today if Linda wasn't running for Senate," McDevitt said. Martha Hart denied her case had anything to do with the campaign but said voters in Connecticut should questionLinda McMahon's moral character.
McMahon recently won the endorsement of the Republican Party to seek retiring Democrat Christopher Dodd's seat. She faces a primary challenge from Weston businessman Peter Schiff, and Republican former Rep. Rob Simmons has not removed his name from the Aug. 10 primary ballot.
McMahon, who has pledged to spend up to $50 million of her own money on the race, trails the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, in public opinion polls on hypothetical general election matchups.
"The death of Owen Hart was a tragic accident and this claim is nothing more than pure political orchestration," said Robert Zimmerman, a spokesman for the WWE.
"For Vince and I and the WWE and fans of the WWE, our hearts and souls went out to Martha and her two young children," McMahon told WFSB-TV in an interview taped Tuesday. "It was our desire to make sure Martha and their children were cared for for the rest of their lives.
"This particular suit is a copyright issue, a contract issue that the WWE will be dealing with."
McDevitt, the WWE attorney, argued that the company has the right to use its copyrighted material featuring Owen Hart. The publicly traded company released the video in April called "Hart & Soul: The Hart Family Anthology," which features Owen Hart and other wrestlers in the Hart family, some of whom still perform for the WWE.
Martha Hart then learned about the other videos made over the years while she was reading court documents the WWE filed over the injunction.
"Martha Hart does not have some exclusive right to the story of her husband; it's just that simple," McDevitt said.
Besides stopping the WWE from using Owen Hart's images, Gregg Rubenstein, a Boston-based attorney for Martha Hart, said his client, as the personal representative of her late husband's estate, is seeking any profits due from his appearances in the videos and other materials that would be due under his contract with the WWE. The WWE attorney said it will be up to a court to decide whether the estate is owed any money from the sale of the videos.
Owen Hart died May 23, 1999, after falling from an apparatus about 80 feet high into the wrestling ring before a crowd of 16,500 people at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo. Hart, who was making an aerial descent into the ring, fell after the device that connected his body harness to the rigging malfunctioned, McDevitt said.
Both McDevitt and Rubenstein agree there is nothing in a wrongful-death settlement that WWE reached with Martha Hart in 2000 addressing the company's use of Owen Hart's image.
Rather, Rubenstein points to a provision in Owen Hart's 1996 booking contract with Titan Sports — a former name of the wrestling company — that says control of "original intellectual property," such as his legal name, ring name, likeness, personality, character, caricatures, voice, gimmicks and routines, reverts to the wrestler after the contract is terminated.
Rubenstein said that the contract was terminated when Owen Hart died and that Martha Hart and Owen Hart's estate control his likeness, name and celebrity.
The same contract, which was signed by Linda McMahon, says the promoter, its licensees and sublicensees "may continue to exploit materials, goods, merchandise and other items incorporating any original intellectual property made before such termination until all such materials, goods and merchandise are sold off."
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