Genie BouchardThe Canadian tennis star, accompanied by a representive of her management company, arrives at the US Open Sunday afternoon. She withdrew from the tournament later in the afternoon. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)
An incident that occurred off-court at the US Open last month may now end up in court.
Eugenie Bouchard filed suit Wednesday in US District Court, a civil action against the US Tennis Association in the wake of the accident in the locker room at the US Open last month that resulted in a concussion that has, except for one brief appearance, kept her off the courts ever since.
Now, it may go to another type of court.
Two counts of negligence are cited (one each against the USTA, and the National Tennis Center itself), along with a request for a jury trial.
No specific monetary compensation is mentioned beyond the fact that the damages requested are "in excess of $150,000 US, exclusive of interest and costs. In the U.S., in a jury trial, the jury determines those damage awards; no doubt the attorneys will be looking for multi-millions.
Bouchard's attorneys are asking for actual, compensatory and statutory damages, punitive damages "as allowed by law", pre and post-judgment interest, injuctive relief, attorneys' fees, taxable costs and "any and all further relief as this court deems just and proper."
The suit, filed by attorney Benedict Morelli of the Morelli Ratner law firm in Manhattan, names both the US Tennis Association and the USTA National Tennis Center Inc. as defendants.
Morelli Ratner is not affiliated with Bouchard's agents, IMG, but indeed outside counsel.
The lawsuit claims:
"Ms. Bouchard was caused to slip and fall on a dangerous condition created by the Defendants in the physiotherapy room attendant to the women's locker room after winning her mixed-doubles match at the 2015 U.S. Open Tennis Championships. ... The Defendants' negligence was a substantial contributing factor in causing Ms. Bouchard's injuries."
The suit claims Bouchard "was caused to slip and fall by a slippery, foreign and dangerous substance on the floor, and the defendants either "caused or created it", or "knew or should have known" that the substance was on the floor. Morelli told the New York Times it was "a cleaning agent that was intended to be left on the floor overnight when the room would no longer be used,", and that in that case, they should have locked the door for safety.
Among the other factual allegations brought forth by the filing:
18. The Defendants "failed to provide any warnings whatsoever about the substance".
19. Bouchard sustained a "severe injury to her head including, but not limited to, a concussion."
22. As a result of Bouchard withdrawing from the US Open and subsequent tournaments, her world ranking has dropped 13 spots, and is likely to continue to drop.
The suit claims "the aforesaid described incident and the resulting injuries to Ms. Bouchard were caused solely "by the reason of the carelessness, negligence, wanton and willfull disregard on the part of Defendant USTA ... without any negligence on the part of Ms. Bouchard contributing hereto."
It also claims the USTA had "actual and/or constructive prior notice" of the dangerous conditions and that Bouchard has "been damaged and endured and continues to endure severe pain and suffering, and incurred and continues to incur significant economic loss, medical expenses and loss of enjoyment of life."
Former player and current tennis commentator Pam Shriver had a take.
— Pam Shriver (@PHShriver) October 15, 2015
There are a couple of interesting twists to this.
Firstly, the original description of events had it that Bouchard was alone in the locker room when the incident occurred – or, at the very least, that all the staff that might normally be in the locker room had departed given the late hour. There is no mention of this in the documents. There also was no mention of the original contention that the room in which the incident occurred was pitch-black.
As well, the suit incorrectly states that Bouchard returned to the locker room after her first-round mixed doubles victory. As far as we know, the incident occurred after Bouchard fulfilled her media obligations, around 11 p.m. Given she appeared to have taken a shower before coming into the press-conference room (or at least, one would hope), this appeared to be her second trip into the women's locker room late that night.
The notion that Bouchard's ranking fell, and will continue to fall, as a result of the incident pre-supposes she would have made a drastic turnaround from her well-documented struggles during the 2015 season and started winning a lot of matches. That's a big assumption, concussion or no concussion.
We also wonder, what does "severe injury to her head including, but not limited to, a concussion" mean, precisely?
(As an aside, the claim also has Bouchard residing in "both Montreal, Quebec and Miami, Florida" - unlike the official residence, which is stated as "Miami Beach, Fla." on the WTA Tour website).
It has been less than six weeks since the incident occurred. There's no way to know if there were settlement talks, or even mediation, or other less-confrontational avenues explored before the lawsuit was filed.
The request for a jury trial, allowed in civil suits in the U.S., is a no-brainer. The jury decides what the award will be, if they rule in the plaintiff's favour, and if you play the "little plaintiff against the big-bad corporate defendant" card right, you can get a lot sympathy from the average joe.
The USTA is a big organization; Bouchard will theoretically be playing that tournament for the next decade (with potential millions in earnings from her results there). You would expect that they would fight this lawsuit with all of their considerable resources. So it's an awkward situation to put a 21-year-old into; let's hope it's worth it to Bouchard and her representatives.
The Morelli Ratner firm boasts it "provides aggressive and effective advocacy for clients in complex cases against powerful adversaries." They claim a $95 million (US) award for a sexual harassment suit, $41 million for a pregnancy misdiagnosis and $30 million to a man who fell onto the subway tracks after leaning over to see if the train was coming, resulting in a double amputation.
A potential jury trial for this – that is, if they don't settle before it gets that far – could occur in the middle of a tennis season – maybe even in the middle of a Grand Slam tournament. There are so many more pressing issues at stake including getting healthy again, finding a new support team and working to return to her 2014 form as she starts over in 2016. But ... millions.
"In line with our long-standing policy, the USTA does not comment on on-going litigation," USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told Eh Game. We're awaiting a return call from Bouchard's attorney, Benedict Morelli.