Why Saints' Fans Lawsuit Won't Change the NFL's Minds
By Thomas Dunn
Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman’s blatant pass-interference and hit to the head of New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tommy Lee Lewis should have drawn a penalty from officials in a 20-20 game on 3rd and 10 with 1:49 left in the 4th quarter of the 2019 NFC Championship game, but it didn’t. The penalty would have given the Saints a 1st down deep in Rams territory, with the Rams only having 1 timeout left, effectively letting the Saints run the clock down to around 20 seconds before having to kick the go-ahead field goal. Instead, the Saints were forced to kick a go-ahead field goal with a stopped clock, which gave the Rams enough time to engineer a drive setting up a 48-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal that sent the game to overtime and allowed the Rams to eventually win the game 26-23 to advance to Super Bowl LIII to play the New England Patriots.
After visible outrage stemming from the blown call, Saints fans decided to take their anger to court. 2 Saints season-ticket holders, along with attorney Frank D’Amico Jr., filed a lawsuit in Louisiana state court against the NFL and Roger Goodell for “mental anguish, emotional trauma, ‘loss of enjoyment of life’ and ‘distrust of the game which has become the National pastime’ on behalf of Saints season-ticket holders and fans.
Along with equitable relief for tickets paid, the plaintiffs are seeking a writ of mandamus to invoke Rule 17, Section 2, Article 3 of the NFL rules which gives Commissioner Goodell the power to either replay the entire game, reverse the games result, or to resume the game from the point in which the wrongful act occurred. Rule 17 gives Commissioner Goodell the right to change an outcome “if any club action, non-participant interference, or calamity occurs in an NFL game which the commissioner deems so extraordinarily unfair...that such action has a major effect on the result of the game.”
While the NFL itself has not released a statement about the play, they have acknowledged through a private conversation with Saints head coach, Sean Payton, that a penalty should have been called, while also fining Robey-Coleman $26,739 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the play. The NFL has also removed the case from Louisiana state court to federal court by citing a rule that allows a defendant to remove a class-action lawsuit exceeding $5 million.
Courts have previously ruled on the rights of NFL season-ticket holders to be reimbursed for purchasing a ticket to an NFL game. In 2009, a group of New York Jets fans filed a lawsuit against the Patriots, the NFL, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick following the Spygate game in which it was alleged that the Patriots were video-taping the Jets sidelines and stealing signals. The court dismissed the action, stating that buying a ticket to a game gives fans the contractual right to watch the game from the seat purchased, and nothing more.
Another element of the lawsuit on behalf of Saints fans to be mindful of is the possibility that the plaintiff’s attorney, Frank D’Amico Jr., could be subject to Rule 11 sanctions under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. While it is unlikely that Rule 11 is even discussed, it could be argued that D’Amico Jr.’s claims are a frivolous argument based on prior precedent, and were done for self-promotion of his business and could be seen as harassing the league under Rule 11(b). The league’s incentive in pursuing Rule 11 motions is the fact that it would halt future frivolous lawsuits from being filed for the self-promotion of attorneys’ businesses.
The likelihood of the lawsuit actually being successful is extremely slim. For starters, if the NFL were to entertain the lawsuit, then the Super Bowl would likely have to be delayed. This would result in a substantial loss in revenue for the NFL, which is estimated to be near $100 million, given the level of event planning that goes into the Super Bowl. Next, there is already legal precedent stemming from the Spygate case that fans have minimal rights to recovery based solely off of buying a ticket to a sporting event. Finally, if Commissioner Goodell were to exercise Rule 17 and either restart, resume the game, or change the outcome, then the NFL would open the floodgates for future litigation brought by fans who felt they were wronged by a referee during the course of a game.
In conclusion, the NFL should move to dismiss this case since there is prior precedent regarding this type of lawsuit and applying Rule 17 would only detrimental to the NFL in the long-term.
References:  Wamsley, Laurel, Angry With NFL After No-Call, Saints Fans Resort to Lawsuits, Billboards, NPR (Jan. 22, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/01/22/687540716/angry-with-nfl-after-no-call-saints-fans-resort-to-lawsuits-billboards  Baker, Thomas, Lawsuit Over Saint No-Call Will Again Show That A Ticket Guarantees Fans A Seat And Little Else, Forbes (Jan. 23, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbaker/2019/01/23/saints-fans-likely-dont-have-the-right-to-force-a-do-over-of-nfc-championship-game/#62d43e02f0db  Keenan, Alexis, Attorney: NFL’s Goodell should explain why he hasn’t taken corrective measures, Yahoo! (Jan. 23, 2019), https://finance.yahoo.com/news/attorney-nf-ls-goodell-should-explain-why-he-hasnt-taken-corrective-measures-225608723.html  The Associated Press, NFL’s first response to Saints’ fans lawsuits cites cost of a redo as too big a price to pay, NY Daily News (Jan. 25, 2019), https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/football/ny-sports-saints-lawsuit-nfl-responds-20190125-story.html  Id.  Baker, Thomas, Lawsuit Over Saint No-Call Will Again Show That A Ticket Guarantees Fans A Seat And Little Else, Forbes (Jan. 23, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbaker/2019/01/23/saints-fans-likely-dont-have-the-right-to-force-a-do-over-of-nfc-championship-game/#62d43e02f0db  Id.  The Associated Press, NFL’s first response to Saints’ fans lawsuits cites cost of a redo as too big a price to pay, NY Daily News (Jan. 25, 2019), https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/football/ny-sports-saints-lawsuit-nfl-responds-20190125-story.html  Baker, Thomas, Lawsuit Over Saint No-Call Will Again Show That A Ticket Guarantees Fans A Seat And Little Else, Forbes (Jan. 23, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbaker/2019/01/23/saints-fans-likely-dont-have-the-right-to-force-a-do-over-of-nfc-championship-game/#62d43e02f0db  Id.
*Thomas Dunn is a first year student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and a staff writer for the Sports Law Society Blog.